Cambodia, Myanmar workers in distress as pandemic hits industry


Newly unemployed workers in Cambodia and Myanmar have taken to the streets to demand assistance from the government after the widespread factory closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Cambodia, where the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 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% of employees, have been protesting since April 22 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.

RFA was unable to reach representatives of Hulu Garment on Monday, but Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour told local media that workers should report to the ministry if the factory does not pay them their full benefits.

Earlier this month, Hun Sen told workers that they would only receive US$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 US$115—or 60% of their wages—they were promised by the government in February.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, where authorities have identified 146 cases of COVID-19 that have led to five deaths, authorities are prosecuting around 70 labour 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 KoWai Phyo. “The government also has sided with factory owners—it’s very unfair.”

“Factory owners have broken the workers’ laws,” labour 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 labourers who have lost their jobs “in two phases,” without elaborating. (Source: RFA)