Workers in Cambodia and Myanmar are facing severe hardships as the spread of the coronavirus decimates their country’s economies and causes widespread factory closures, prompting them to take to the streets to demand assistance from their governments.
In Cambodia, where the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus—has held at 122 with no deaths in recent weeks, more than 100 workers held a protest in front of the Hulu Garment factory in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday demanding full benefits following a suspension of operations on March 24 due to a decrease in orders from international retailers.
The workers, representing around 10 percent of employees, have been protesting since April 22—except for a break during the weekend—after factory management a day earlier informed them that the facility would close down for good and asked them to quit with the promise of some, but not all, of their benefits.
Worker Heoun Hak told RFA’s Khmer Service that she and other employees are demanding that the factory inform them whether the closure will be permanent, noting that if so, management would be required to pay them full benefits, in accordance with a government order.
RFA was unable to reach representatives of Hulu Garment on Monday, but Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour told local media that workers should report to the ministry if the factory does not pay them their full benefits.
Heng Sour said at a press conference on Monday that if the spread of the coronavirus is not halted in the countries that are home to Cambodia’s textile buyers by June, “our workers will have to find other kinds of employment, including potentially in the agricultural sector, as proposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen,” although he added that the government has “also prepared vocational training programs.”
Earlier this month, Hun Sen told workers that they would only receive U.S. $70 in monthly wages if they are laid off by factories hit with supply chain disruptions and a lack of orders due to the outbreak, instead of the U.S. $115—or 60 percent of their wages—they were promised by the government in February.
Heng Sour said Monday that more than 130 factories have already asked to suspend operations due to the virus, which he estimated would result in some 100,000 workers becoming unemployed. He urged factory owners to suspend operations rather than close down their businesses for the sake of the country’s workers.
Vice President of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia Mann Seng Hak told RFA that his organization also wants factories to temporarily shut down instead of close for good “to prevent unemployment,” and called on the government to provide assistance to both owners and their workers.
Call for debt suspension
Meanwhile, 135 nongovernmental organizations and rights groups issued a joint statement on Monday calling for the suspension of all microfinance debts, including interest accrual, and the return of millions of land titles to the public for at least three months amid the outbreak.
“These actions are necessary to ensure that people are able to survive this crisis without risking their health or homes and are able to avoid further risky loans that could lead to bonded labor, human trafficking and other human rights abuses,” the statement said.
More than 2.5 million Cambodians currently hold microloans, with an average loan of more than U.S. $3,800, according to the groups.
Calls by RFA to Chea Chanto, the governor of the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC), went unanswered Monday, while his daughter Chea Serei, who is the NBC’s director-general, told RFA she was in a meeting and unable to answer questions about the joint statement.
On Mar 27, the NBC issued several measures advising banking and microfinance institutions to consider temporary deferment of debt payments for clients from the tourism, garment, construction, and transportation sectors.
Myanmar activists prosecuted
In Myanmar, where authorities have identified 146 cases of COVID-19 that have led to five deaths, authorities are prosecuting around 70 labor activists and workers for organizing strikes while social distancing orders are in effect to help control the spread of the virus.
Violations of the Natural Disaster Act used to enforce social distancing regulations are punishable by a fine, one year in prison, or both.
Workers and some of the activists who are being targeted for organizing the strikes told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Monday that factory owners are also operating in violation of the act but are not being held accountable by authorities.
“During the coronavirus epidemic, we have been working too close to each other,” said worker Ko Wai Phyo. “The government also has sided with factory owners—it’s very unfair.”
“Factory owners have broken the workers’ laws,” labor activist Ko Myat Kyaw told RFA.
“There were negotiations between workers and owners [to improve conditions], but they failed. In the end, the workers and activists were prosecuted under the Natural Disaster Act.”
Meanwhile, more than 62,000 workers have been laid off in Myanmar as factories and companies shut down across the country due to the outbreak, Myo Aung, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Immigration and Population, said Monday.
He said the ministry will provide a social welfare package to laborers who have lost their jobs “in two phases,” without elaborating.
Living on credit
But laid off workers living in urban areas told RFA that they can no longer afford to pay their rent, even as they are restricted from traveling back to their hometowns as part of a lockdown order to help halt the outbreak in Myanmar.
“They end up building and staying in makeshift tents near the hostels they previously stayed in, although some have begged the hostel owners to let them stay on credit,” said Than Than Soe, a worker from the Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone in Yangon.
“They’ve ended up in very miserable conditions. I myself have applied for jobs at some factories that have opened, but they rejected me saying they have their own workers to hire back and will not hire new workers any time soon. They said they cannot even take back all the regular staff and have had to let some go.”
Wai Wai Aung, a laborer from Ayeyarwaddy region who lost her job in Yangon, said she has been forced to survive by borrowing money and paying for food and accommodation on credit.
“Both income generators in the family have lost their jobs and we are now spending borrowed money for food, let alone paying the rent,” she said.
“I don’t see anyone receiving government relief in my neighborhood. The ward administrators have collected some information, but they are picking households at random and only listing people they are familiar with ... I’ve had to beg our landlord to wait for another month for rent.”
Kha Kha, the labor dispute coordinator at rights group Let’s Help Each Other (LHEO), told RFA workers are “struggling to make ends meet,” noting that many families work odd jobs to survive while sending one or two children to work at the factories, who have since been laid off.
“We want to know how the government plans to help these people who have lost their jobs,” he said.
“They could end up working in illegal businesses, which could lead to an increase in crimes like theft or human trafficking. I am also concerned about a potential increase in domestic violence against female laborers.”
The European Union recently donated 5 million euros (U.S. $5.4 million) to assist textile laborers who have lost their job as a result of the coronavirus outbreak and Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) chairman Maung Maung told RFA his organization plans to begin distributing the cash in May.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service and by Phyu Phyu Khine and Aung Thane Kha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.