Laid off Cambodian garment workers due to coronavirus compete for factory shifts


Hundreds of Cambodian garment workers who were recently laid off, wait on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for hours, desperate to be selected for a one-off shift job.

Cambodia’s textile industry – the economy’s US$7 billion backbone that provides about 850,000 jobs – has been pummelled by the coronavirus pandemic with major Western retailers cancelling orders or demanding discounts from their suppliers.

About a third of its 600 garment factories are shut, which has cost tens of thousands of workers their jobs and left them struggling to survive as state aid has been slow to materialise.

Mostly women, many of them have recently joined the pre-dawn gatherings where factories send brokers to find workers for off-the-books daily shifts to augment their regular labour force.

“What do they know about my skills, about the industry?” seamstress Em Thy said. “It’s an insult that I would have to beg to them.”

Thy said she had no choice with a family to feed but was frustrated at having to deal with brokers as they were known to play the women against each other and go back on their word.

Before the outbreak, nearly all of the women at the informal labour market could expect to pick up a day’s work and earn about US$8, roughly in line with the minimum wage of US$190 a month.

Now, the women say they are fortunate if they get one shift each week – and have less bargaining power as their ranks swell.

Han Nang said she was promised a week of work but had not been picked up by the broker from the market on the final day.

“Did I get paid? No. Do I have time to chase him for my money? No,” said the 34-year-old, who was fired when her factory scaled down operations in March. “It would be useless anyway.”

One of the recruiters – who arrived on a motorbike-drawn trailer to ferry workers – showed little sympathy for the women.

“If they demand too much, they will just be left sitting here,” he said on condition of anonymity to protect his job.

Across Asia, campaigners have warned of a mass rollback of labour rights in the garment sector, with workers forced to accept worse conditions as jobs are cut and factory bosses accused of using coronavirus staff culls to target union staff.

“There is great concern … about the impacts of the crisis pushing workers into unsavoury, unwanted areas of the economy,” said John Ritchotte, an officer with the International Labour Organization (ILO) – a United Nations agency – based in Bangkok.

Among the hundreds of women waiting on the roadside, several appeared to be under 18. Cambodian law allows children to do non-hazardous jobs from 15 provided they have parental consent.

The United Nations last week warned the pandemic could lead to families putting their children to work, while a survey by charity Plan International found that a third of 480 Cambodian children had observed a rise in child labour since the outbreak.

Ken Loo, head of the Garment Manufacturing Association in Cambodia, said some factory jobs were legal for under-18s but that the trade body advised its members against hiring children.

“Most buyers frown upon it,” he said. “There are more than enough adult workers ..there’s no need to hire minors.”

Cambodia in April promised that laid off garment and tourism workers would receive US$40 per month in government handouts and so far, about US$2.7 million has been disbursed to more than 125,000 people and more claims are being processed.

But the rollout has been too slow – and the application process too complicated – according to Khun Tharo, program director at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.

“People who live hand to mouth have been waiting months,” he said, urging the country to extend aid to all informal workers.

For women like Han Nang, waiting for aid is not an option.

“We know the chances (of being picked for factory shifts) are low,” she said. “But how else should we get money for rent, rice and milk to feed our babies?” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)