Scores of women who work in Cambodia’s entertainment sector have petitioned the government for monthly assistance of U.S. $40 and to intervene with their landlords to lower their rent, with some resorting to sleeping under bridges in the capital after the coronavirus outbreak devastated their industry.
In the petition, the women said that since the government closed entertainment venues on March 17 to prevent the spread of the outbreak—including karaoke parlors, movie theaters, and clubs—they have had trouble paying their rent and utilities, and affording food. Around 40,000 people have lost their jobs, they said.
The group Tung Chreb, which represents the women, told RFA’s Khmer Service the petition signed by 169 entertainment workers had been accepted by the Council of Ministers, Ministry of Labor, and Ministry of Women’s Affairs on Thursday, but said the ministries had made no promise to provide help.
“We urged the government to help us with the rent and food,” said a representative of the group, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We hope the government will help because we are facing difficulties.”
Srey Pov, a divorced mother of four who lost her job at a massage parlor three months ago, said she had moved her family under a bridge in Phnom Penh because she could no longer afford rent and was evicted by her landlord.
“I’ve been looking for a job, but all employers say they can’t hire me because of the outbreak,” she said.
Neighbors provided her with some food and clothes for the children, but sleeping rough has been difficult because of the cold weather and mosquitos, Srey Pov said, pleading with the government for help.
A representative from the Ministry of Labor named Nin Vannak, who accepted the petition, told RFA he would forward it to Minister Ith Sam Heng.
“I don’t know about the next step—please wait,” he said. “My job is to accept the petition and give it to the minister to decide.”
Thursday’s petition was the second by the group after one submitted on June 10 was denied by the Ministry of Labor, which instead encouraged its members to find new jobs.
The government, meanwhile, has been providing financial assistance to laid off or suspended workers in the country’s key garment and tourism industries and recently approved a stimulus package for 562,686 families—or some 2.3 million Cambodians—who are classified as poor and vulnerable by the Ministry of Planning.
Cambodian Food and Service Workers' Federation president Ou Tepphallin told RFA that the government should have included women in the entertainment sector as part of its assistance programs, noting that Prime Minister Hun Sen had vowed “not to leave anyone behind” during the outbreak.
“During a crisis, the government must pay attention to its people,” she said, adding that most of the laid off entertainment workers have been unable to find new jobs and can barely put enough food on the table.
During a call-in show with RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday, Ou Tepphallin clarified that entertainment workers cannot apply for many of the job opportunities available now because they lack the required skills and higher-level education.
Some workers have taken temporary jobs washing dishes or laundry, but that the pay is unsteady and insufficient.
“People are even sleeping under bridges,” she said.
‘Test’ for Hun Sen
Ou Tepphallin also urged the government not to politicize the issue, noting that just because the entertainment workers don’t have the money to afford their rent or, in some cases, repay loans doesn’t mean they are following a recent appeal by the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to suspend payments to lenders.
Sam Rainsy, the acting chief of the CNRP, recently urged villagers to stop their loan payments for at least six months in messages posted to social media from Paris, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions. He said such a move is warranted because the government has failed to provide borrowers with assistance during the outbreak.
Sam Rainsy’s calls were met with rage by Hun Sen, who threatened to respond to the attempt to “sabotage” his government by adding to the nearly 20 CNRP opposition officials or activists who authorities have arrested and thrown in prison—most without arrest warrants—since the beginning of the year.
Earlier this week, Hun Sen threatened to allow banks and microfinance lenders to file complaints with the courts in order to confiscate the assets of borrowers if they refuse to pay their debts.
Ou Tepphallin told RFA on Friday called the coronavirus a “test” for Hun Sen’s government, which has said it won’t allow anyone to die of starvation during the outbreak.
But the situation appears bleak for the tens of thousands of entertainment workers who are unable to earn a living and fall through the cracks of the government payment programs.
A woman named Tem Rum, who used to work at a karaoke parlor, told RFA she has been forced to rummage through the trash for cans and bottles to sell in order to feed herself and pay for a place to stay.
She said she had also been unable to find a job as many employers have shut their doors during the health crisis.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.