Asia Pacific

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

by Matt Blomberg and Mech Dara

Thomson Reuters Foundation

For three hours, Cambodian seamstress Em Thy waited in a crowd with hundreds of other laid-off garment workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, desperate to be selected for a one-off shift.

Defeated, the 53-year-old shouted insults at the factory recruiters as they drove away without her one morning last week.

“Why is my fate is in the hands of these despicable brokers?” Thy said, having lost her job in March after two decades of consistent factory work.

Cambodia’s textile industry — the economy’s $7 billion backbone that provides about 850,000 jobs — has been pummeled by the coronavirus pandemic, with major Western retailers canceling 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 materialize.

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

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.

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

Before the outbreak, nearly all of the women at the informal labor market could expect to pick up a day’s work and earn about $8, roughly in line with the minimum wage of $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 labor 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 unsavory, unwanted areas of the economy,” said John Ritchotte, an officer with the International Labour Organization — 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 nonhazardous 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 labor since the outbreak.

Minea, 16, and her younger sister had been sent from rural Kampong Thom — about a four hour drive from the capital — to earn for the extended family while their migrant worker parents waited out the lockdown across the border in Thailand.

“We are stuck here for now,” Minea said, as she and her sister resigned themselves to another day without work.

“We don’t even have money to pay rent and buy a bus ticket, let alone send anything home.”

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.”

Labor ministry spokesman Heng Suor did not respond to questions about children being hired for informal garment work.

Shift workers should direct any claims of abuses by factory bosses and brokers to government labor inspectors, he added.

Cambodia in April promised that laid off garment and tourism workers would receive $40 per month in government handouts.

About $2.7 million has so far been dispersed to more than 125,000 people and more claims are being processed, Suor said.

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?”

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