Workers making goods for the west grapple with virus surge in Southeast Asia


Countries across Southeast Asia that managed to avoid the worst of the pandemic last year are facing new waves of COVID-19, fuelled by more contagious variants.

Clusters have begun in key manufacturing sites, in several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In Vietnam, which virtually eradicated the virus last year, total cases have tripled since the start of May, reaching almost 10,000, driven partly by outbreaks in factories.

Malaysia was forced to impose a lockdown this month after daily cases surpassed 9,000. Much of the country’s manufacturing sector has been allowed to continue operating at limited capacity throughout lockdown, despite concerns raised by campaigners.

On Friday, it emerged that more than 800 workers at glove maker WRP had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Unfortunately the whole setup of these production lines and factories is not conducive to COVID-19 prevention,” said Andy Hall, a specialist in migrant workers’ rights.

Increased demand for certain goods during the pandemic has placed additional pressure on supply chains. Many such products are destined for Europe: tech gear and printers for people who are working from home, medical gloves for health workers, tinned tuna for people stocking up the cupboards.

In Thailand, workers at more than 130 factories have been infected, according to a survey by the industry ministry reported by Thai media. This includes Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand’s biggest agriculture business.

Suthasinee Kaewleklai, Thailand coordinator of the advocacy group the Migrant Workers Rights Network, said many of the country’s affected factories are staffed by workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, who are especially vulnerable.

“They don’t have worker unions or labour unions like Thai workers. They don’t have representatives to negotiate what the employers should do for them.”

Chhaeut So Phally, a garment worker in Cambodia, which has also seen a recent rise in cases, said that even if people do manage to remain distanced on the factory floor, his colleagues were crammed together as they journeyed to and from work on the back of trucks.

For some, the journey can take hours, he said.

Chhaeut tested positive following an outbreak among colleagues at a garment factory in Kampong Chhnang, central Cambodia. He was immediately taken to an isolation room to wait for an ambulance, which would ferry him to a quarantine facility.

As he waited, he called his wife, who cried at the news. “I worried about my children. What if they test positive and are treated in a different place. What if my wife tests positive? Who will take care of our children?”

The next day the authorities placed rope around his house. His wife and children were told to remain indoors. They have relied on neighbours to leave food outside their door. He isn’t sure he will be paid his full salary this month.

For many, the economic consequences of the virus are feared more than the illness itself. “In part, this is because Cambodia was largely unaffected by the virus health-wise last year, while the economic effects were devastating,” said Patrick Lee, a legal adviser at the advocacy group, Central.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that poverty will almost double in the country due to COVID-19, spreading to 17.6% of the population.

Cambodia’s garment sector was thrown into crisis at the start of the pandemic, when companies abruptly cancelled orders. Over 100 factories closed last year, and more than 400 others suspended employment, often for months at a time, Lee said.

Research by Central suggests the suspension of orders peaked in July last year, but that business began to pick up again as western brands beefed up their online sales.

The recent outbreak in Cambodia, which began in April and prompted a severe lockdown, has caused further disruption and again placed greater pressure on the poorest.

Cambodian law doesn’t require employers to pay a full salary during the lockdown, said Lee. (Source: The Guardian)