Kong Rattana Somaly began working for Mfone about 13 years ago, in 2000. She answered phones in the call centre, and after a while rose to a supervisor position. When the telecommunications firm unexpectedly filed for bankruptcy in January last year, few saw it coming. She learned about it from a local newspaper.
“I remember the day well. Everyone was shocked. They wept and held each other,” the 43-year-old said yesterday at her clothing shop near Russian market, which she started a few months after the company fell apart. “Some cried, yelling out ‘We are jobless!’”
More than a year after Mfone went bankrupt, leaving behind millions in unpaid wages and owing debts to foreign companies, laid-off employees are still feeling the force of the collapse. Some, like Somaly, sighed and moved in the direction of an entirely new career. She isn’t looking back, vowing to never work for a telecommunications company again.
Others have bigger problems, from debt to ongoing unemployment. More than 1,000 workers were ultimately left high and dry after the Cambodian telco shut its doors.
Since then, compensation payments have trickled in through the sale of Mfone’s assets, but the process is slow. After tending to her shop yesterday morning, Somaly joined her former employees at an unassuming flat in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district to receive the third and latest installment of what the company owes workers in compensation, raising the total to 70 per cent.
The payment arrived after 10 per cent was doled out in July, followed by another 30 per cent in November. About $3.08 million of the $4.4 million owed to the workers has been paid out.
It is estimated that Mfone accumulated more than $160 million in debt before it went bankrupt.
Corporate creditors include Norwegian-owned electronics firm Eltek Valere (owed about $5 million) and Chinese telecommunications equipment provider Huawei Technologies (owed $65 million).
The firm’s demise triggered a fire sale of its assets, including thousands of cell phone towers scattered around Phnom Penh and the countryside.
The total value of the assets was reportedly worth more than $107 million, but they sold to Chinese-owned Khmer Unity Network Communicate Co Ltd for no more than $10 million in August, freeing up funds to repay workers, while making it conspicuously more difficult to meet the demands of corporate creditors.
Despite the intermittent wage payments, the money can’t replace a steady income. Prior to the bankruptcy, some workers had even taken out bank loans to buy a house.
While waiting to collect yesterday, Ma Sovanmady, who worked in telemarketing for Mfone, said her life had taken a “very difficult” turn since she lost her $150 per-month paycheck last year. The 33-year-old had been on two months maternity leave, and was due to return to work the day Mfone confirmed it was shutting down.
“Now, I have to depend solely on my husband’s wage while I am staying at home looking after my child. Life is worse than it was before,” she said.
Two ex-Mfone employees picking up their money yesterday have gone down different paths.
Nuth Sotha, 33, who once earned $300 per month maintaining the company’s network infrastructure, has become a farmer.
“I have decided to stay and try to make a living in Kampong Cham. It will be significantly less, but I want to be close to my family,” Sotha said.
He is anxiously awaiting the remaining 30 per cent of $4,415 in compensation he is owed as he and his wife prepare for the arrival of their first child in the next couple of months.
“The company never assisted us in finding new work after the bankruptcy. To be honest, [I think] they are only compensating us after we protested,” he said, referring to demonstrations that took place months after the bankruptcy occurred.
Loas Sokha, however, stayed in the telecommunications industry. He worked for Mfone for four years as a sim card salesman before getting the news that his job and the company he worked for no longer existed. After three months of unemployment, he managed to find work with telecommunications firm Mobitel. Still, the transition was not an easy one.
“Mfone never warned us of the issues they were having or that we should consider finding other work,” he said. “I guess, at the time, I tried to comfort myself by telling myself nothing in life was certain.”
Mfone worker representative Pang Vuthy estimates that about 80 per cent of all former personnel had found some type of employment, albeit on lower salaries.
“Many faced – and still face – financial problems due to urgently having to pick up work after the bankruptcy. Young workers, less than 35 years old, have found other jobs more easily, while older workers found it much harder and started new ventures.”
Vuthy called on the bankruptcy administrator to speed up the compensation allotments in order to assist those still battling unemployment.
“If they can pay us quickly, I think it will be a big help for those who are still jobless or trying to run their own businesses,” he said.
Ouk Ry, the administrator, said yesterday that the final payment will be made by the end of March.
A lawyer for Mfone, who was brought in after the company filed for bankruptcy, said yesterday he didn’t know if employees were notified or if transition programs were in place.
With her clothing shop at the Russian market, Somaly counts herself among the lucky few.
“I make more revenue than I ever used to at Mfone,” she said, adding that she still felt some nostalgia for her former job.“I miss that place. We always thought of Mfone as our home. But now, I am building a new life.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY KUNMAKARA