Cambodian Unions and NGOs Demand Workers’ Protections to Combat COVID-19

Cambodian Unions and NGOs Demand Workers’ Protections to Combat COVID-19 Villagers wait to get their second doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at an injection center outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Cambodian NGOs and trade unions called on Phnom Penh Wednesday to improve health and safety for workers in the country to combat its recent coronavirus outbreak, while the governments of neighboring Vietnam and Laos took precautions Wednesday to keep the virus from spreading within its borders.

Though Cambodia has relatively few cases compared to the rest of the world, an outbreak that started in February resulted in cases increasing exponentially from tens to hundreds each day. Many patients have been factory and construction workers who live, commute and work in close quarters that cause transmission.

The country last week shattered its daily record of COVID-19 infections with nearly 700 cases of the disease caused by the coronavirus. On Wednesday, another 698 tested positive, bringing the total number of cases to 11,761 with 88 deaths.

The 36 NGOs and unions said that the central government had a responsibility to guarantee workers’ health and safety during the pandemic.

“Occupational health and safety is of paramount importance in the contribution of employers, unions, the government, development partners and civil society organizations for joint action to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia,” the statement said.

“So far, approximately two thousand employees have been found to be COVID-19 positive in more than 90 factories in Phnom Penh and a number of other factories. The biggest concern for workers’ health and safety and risks are in other factories which have not yet found COVID-19 cases and workers will face a risk of returning to their workplace in a situation where there is no guarantee of occupational health and safety,” it said.

Cambodia has instituted a 14-day lockdown in the capital and surrounding areas amid the recent outbreak.

The unions and NGOs recommended that the government create a monitoring mechanism to keep tabs on COVID-19 particularly among construction workers, conduct health and safety inspections, provide masks and hand sanitizer as well as other safety materials, and improve COVID-19 prevention measures on transportation where workers ride in close proximity.

Other measures it recommended included clearer communication on health and safety protocols in at-risk facilities, creation of social assistance programs during periods of lockdown, and efforts to keep street vendors safe.

Laos closes down

In neighboring Laos, COVID-19 cases rose to 604 Wednesday, an increase of 93 over a day earlier as three more provinces went on lockdown, joining the rest of the country.

“We tested 3,055 people today and found 93 to be infected with COVID-19,” Rattanaxay Phetsouvanh, director general of the Communicable Disease Control Department, told a press conference Wednesday.

A member of the Taskforce Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control in the northwestern province of Bokeo told RFA’s Lao Service Wednesday that an entire family in the province became infected.

“They got infected today, all of them, including the father, the mother, and their two children were admitted to hospitals,” the Bokeo taskforce member said.

The increase in cases prompted the government to limit movement around the the capital, Vientiane.

“All villages and districts have been locked down and people have been advised to stay home at all times and wear masks when they go out. Those caught without a mask will be fined,” a member of the city’s COVID-19 taskforce committee told RFA.

A member of the task force in the southern Champassak province told RFA that people there are concerned, because, with 78 total cases, the province has the second highest in the country behind Vientiane.

“Our medical personnel are working hard nonstop. As the number of cases continues to rise, we are worried that our hospitals will not have enough beds, doctors, nurses, and medical equipment like ventilators and oxygen tanks soon,” the Champassak taskforce member said.

“We are now building two field hospitals at the provincial correctional center and a college dormitory that can house between 1,000 and 2,000 patients,” he said.

In nearby Savannakhet province, restaurants have been ordered to operate only between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., and to only serve takeout.

All of Laos’ 17 provinces are now officially under lockdown, several sources confirmed that their province had received the orders and local law enforcement had set up roadblocks to prevent unnecessary travel, including in Houaphanh, Xaysomboun and Attapeu, which have yet to report any confirmed cases.

Authorities have set up a checkpoint on a street in Vientiane Laos, April 28, 2021. The city has been locked down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Credit: RFA

The lockdown will negatively affect livelihoods, as places of work temporarily shut down, sources told RFA.

“All textile and garment factories are closed from today until May 5, except for those factories equipped with workers’ dormitories. All other factories can operate with a reduced workforce. We expect thousands will be laid off,” an official of the Ministry of Industry and Trade told RFA Tuesday.

A Vientiane worker confirmed the layoffs to RFA, saying, “My factory is closed until the 5th of next month. I’m just staying at home right now doing nothing.”

A Vientiane resident said she and her family would struggle financially during the lockdown.

“We don’t have any money. We will have to sell our valuables, dip into our savings to pay our debt, utilities and food,” she said.

A pawn shop owner in Vientiane said business was on the rise.

“Most people sell or pawn gold necklaces, bracelets, computers and smart phones,” the pawnbroker said.

For the most part people are complying with the lockdown orders.

“More and more people are getting infected. We are staying home, and all the stores are closed anyway, because everybody is scared. If you want to travel from one village to another, you will be stopped and your temperature will be checked,” a resident of Savannakhet told RFA.

Residents in Champassak said they needed to ask authorities for permission to go to grocery stores, and they had to wear masks.

Several sources told RFA that the fallout from the lockdown will highlight the need for more robust government assistance.

“The association of restaurants and hotels is discussing a proposal to ask the government to lower taxes between five and 10 percent,” said a Vientiane restaurant owner.

A resident of Borikhamxay province told RFA that the government should consider lowing utility prices because most people are not working and have no income but are using more power in the home.

An official of Laos’ finance ministry told RFA that if the lockdown lasts more than three months, businesses will be taxed at a lower rate.

On Monday, China transferred 300,000 doses of its SinoPharm vaccine to Laos, bringing the total number of doses donated by Beijing to 1.4 million. So far, more than 60,000 people have been fully vaccinated, while about 150,000 more have received their first dose.


Vietnam detects new cases

In Vietnam, a mother and daughter caused a Ho Chi Minh City hospital to place 38 staff in quarantine when they went for medical treatment but did not initially reveal that they live in neighboring Cambodia.

Nguyen Tan Binh, director of the city’s health department, told local media that the two women had come to the Tu Du Hospital to seek treatment for an issue with the daughter’s pregnancy.

Hospital staff were unaware that the two had crossed a land border from Cambodia until Tuesday, six days after the daughter was admitted. From then 38 of the hospital’s staff were also placed in quarantine. Test results revealed that none of the 40 suspected cases were positive.

Director Binh said it has become common for Vietnamese people living in Cambodia to travel to Vietnam for medical treatment as the pandemic has overwhelmed Cambodian hospitals. He said Vietnam must be cautious around Vietnamese who could be COVID-19 positive when they enter Vietnam.

Vietnam’s health ministry in a letter Wednesday asked authorities in the central northern province of Yen Bai to investigate and properly manage a positive COVID-19 case that was traced to a receptionist at a hotel where a group of professionals from India were undergoing quarantine procedures after they had previously tested positive.

State media reported that the 63-year-old receptionist had become the country’s 2,857th confirmed COVID case, and the latest to be transmitted locally. The four professionals had entered Vietnam on April 18 and had come in contact with the receptionist while he was working at the Nhu Nguyet hotel.

The four Indian nationals and the receptionist were admitted to Hanoi’s National Hospital for Tropical Diseases.

The ministry’s letter asked the province to investigate the patient to trace all people that had had close contact with him so that they too could be quarantined. It also ordered the Yen Bai People’s Committee’s health department to provide the ministry with daily updates on their investigation.

Nguyen Van Kinh, the chairman of the Vietnam Society of Infectious Diseases, told local media that the authorities were analyzing the virus in the four Indian nationals to check on whether they were infected with the B.1617 variant of the virus, which is spreading rampantly in India. 

A woman is tested for coronavirus in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 25, 2021. Credit: Reuters

A day earlier, during a meeting of the National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention and Control, health officials expressed their concerns that new infections could arise as Vietnam continues to allow foreign professionals and Vietnamese citizens to enter the country from abroad.

The committee asked relevant agencies to closely monitor the country’s border areas, especially along the Cambodian border, as local transmission within Cambodia has risen sharply over the past few weeks.

Additionally, the defense ministry has beefed up checkpoints along Vietnam’s land borders and increased navy surveillance of its shorelines to prevent illegal entry into the country. 

The health ministry warned that an outbreak could occur during the holiday period between Reunification Day on April 30 and International Labor Day on May 1. 

It called on people to avoid large public gatherings and to report for testing in a timely manner if they experience symptoms, as well as following the country’s 5K campaign of wearing facemasks, sanitizing hands and items, keeping a distance, not gathering, and declaring health status, five precautions that all begin with the letter K in Vietnamese.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Samean Yun, Max Avary and Anna Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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