Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

WHO, labor leaders urge stronger action to prevent COVID-19 in factories as more workers test positive for virus

Garment workers enter a factory for their morning's work in the Dangkor district of Phnom Penh, May 27, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Garment workers enter a factory for their morning's work in the Dangkor district of Phnom Penh, May 27, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

As the World Health Organization urges action for Cambodian garment workers infected with COVID-19, union leaders are calling on the government to take stronger action to protect factory staff.

Over the past three weeks, infections from the novel coronavirus have been recorded among garment workers in factories spread across several provinces, prompting organized labor groups to seek intervention from the Ministry of Labour. Union chiefs are demanding the ministry seek healthy solutions for workers, including help with securing accommodation and maintaining salaries during mandatory 14-day quarantines, along with other measures.

Yang Sophorn, president of Cambodian Alliance Trade Union (CATU), told CamboJA he had spoken with several other labor groups regarding new infections among workers.

“We will request the government to safeguard workers’ livelihoods, in such ways as continuing to provide salary during quarantine at homes or health centers,” she said, adding that worker quarantines have been shown to be an effective method of preventing the spread of the virus.

“I have seen, they have not carried out those measures yet,” Sophorn said, referring to relevant authorities, adding that officials have neglected to take action on the tightly packed transport trucks believed to be a transmission vector for the virus.

She said that if employees are not provided a full salary during quarantine, their livelihoods will be badly affected, as they don’t have enough money to support family members. This was the case when workers were stuck in lockdown in Phnom Penh and Takhmao city, Sophorn added.

“If they can’t get money they will face difficulty in daily living, including to pay back bank debt,” she said.

Pav Sina, president of Collective Union of Movement of Workers, shared a similar view as Sophorn, urging provincial authorities to close factories for a short time period. Sina even recommended officials reconsider another lockdown.

“The situation is now getting worse after some workers escaped from quarantine,” he said, pointing to a case in which some workers left the Youli International garment factory in the Shandong Sunshell SEZ in Svay Rieng province, where they had been ordered to quarantine for 14 days.

“It is not just about the welfare of workers,” Sina said, “the community will be at risk when they run away from quarantine.”

However, Sina said workers had told him there was not enough food to eat in the quarantine, as well as other difficulties. 

On Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported 649 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total count to 27,638 since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20 — when the ongoing community outbreak began. The ministry has also recorded 20,398 recovered cases and 194 deaths from the virus.

This Wednesday, hundreds of workers were captured on video escaping from factory quarantines in two Svay Rieng Special Economic Zones. In the Tai Seng SEZ, workers ran away from their bicycle factory after physicians came to their bicycle factory to test for COVID-19. About 60 workers tested positive for the virus in the factory in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet city.

Provincial health director Keo Ratha confirmed the workers who tested positive are working at the zone’s A and J bicycle factory, which employs a total of about 200 workers. Ratha said working groups are collecting additional test samples in the Tai Seng SEZ.

“We do not know the source of infection yet, because it is now complex,” he explained, adding that there are thousands of workers in the factories of the Tai Seng SEZ.

“We are really concerned about the spread because workers have returned back to their homes, in which they have contact with family members,” Ratha said. Authorities have temporarily suspended factory operations at A and J and have set up quarantines within the factory.

Ratha also said workers from the bicycle factory, as well as those from other factories in the SEZ, had escaped from the zone due to fear of a mandatory quarantine declared by physicians and enforced by police. Employees reportedly rushed to pack into trucks when leaving work at 5 p.m.

“In fact, we didn’t intend to quarantine them,” Ratha admitted. 

That said, he added that 20 more workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Youli International Garment factory, which has now recorded more than 120 total cases of COVID-19 among staff. Youli is in the Shandong Sunshell SEZ, also in Svay Rieng province.

A 40-year-old worker named Navy was one of the workers who escaped quarantine at the Youli factory. She told CamboJA she had tested negative for the virus twice since being quarantined on May 22, including once on Thursday morning. She also said hundreds of workers rushed out of the factory after hearing that more of their coworkers had tested positive for the virus.

“The workers were protesting to go home, and when they saw a security guard open the gate, they ran out,” Navy said, explaining that she had returned to work after testing negative twice for the virus.

She has complained that during quarantine at the factory, there was not enough water consumption, foods of no quality, including toilets.

Svay Rieng provincial Police Chief Koeng Khorn confirmed his officials have located workers who fled when physicians came to take samples.

“We have found them and local authorities have quarantined those workers at their homes to wait for physicians to take samples at their respective villages,” he said, declining to reveal the number of workers who fled the factory.

Garment workers gather to buy breakfast in front a factory before their morning shift in the Dangkor district of Phnom Penh, May 27, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Meanwhile, officials in Preah Sihanouk province detected about 100 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the majority of which were among garment workers. That brought the total number of workers in the province who have tested positive for the virus to 648 since the beginning of the current community outbreak on February 20, according to provincial hall spokesman Kheang Phearum.

“We are collecting samples from workers who were involved or were directly exposed,” he said.  

Phearum said the provincial administration has temporarily suspended 14 factories and enterprises in which workers have tested positive for the virus.

Other provinces have also seen serious outbreaks among garment workers. In Kampong Chhnang province, the Horizon Outdoor garment factory has marked 80 workers this week who have tested positive for COVID-19, following a rash of new infections last week.

Provincial health department director Prak Vun, said authorities are working to prevent the spread of the virus, as there are now three or four factories in which COVID-19 has been detected. Vun pointed to worker transport trucks as a source of infection but declined to comment further.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said in a brief phone message that the ministry is urging relevant parties to continue implementing measures laid out by the Ministry of Health and provincial authorities. He didn’t say anything else besides adding that the outbreak was having a serious impact on industry.

 Dr. Li Ailan, the WHO representative to Cambodia, said the viral outbreak is far from over in Cambodia.  

“The COVID-19 situation remains serious, and I am very concerned about a high possibility of surge while relaxing measures too fast and too much,” Ailan told CamboJA. “That is why we must focus on our collective and effective COVID-19 interventions today to prevent a big surge in the future.”

“I am sorry to remind everyone of our reality that new infections are occurring every day,” she said.

The doctor explained that the virus can spread easily between people and places due to movement and close contact, especially in high-risk settings such as garment factories, markets, prisons and crowded living places. 

She said WHO continues to work with the government, especially the Health Ministry, in suppressing viral transmission and preparing for the worst-case scenario — a large-scale community transmission.

She advised the government to focus on early detection and targeted interventions, such as taking measures to prevent crowding in places such as markets, as well as applying other risk mitigation to businesses like garment factories.