When the garment factory that employs her opened its doors yesterday for the first time since Sunday’s election, Chan Neoun was about 130 kilometres away, at home in Svay Rieng province.
“I did not go to work because my father did not allow me come to Phnom Penh,” said Neoun, 25, who works at Orange Trading Co in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. “His neighbour told him that there were a lot of police and soldiers standing guard in Phnom Penh and some main roads were blocked.”
Intense rioting and a military crackdown were just some of the rumours flying around on Sunday as Cambodia waited for election results to come in.
Word of civil unrest, most of it exaggerated except for isolated protests, reached many of Phnom Penh’s garment workers who had travelled home to cast ballots. A lot of them opted to miss work rather than risk walking into a dangerous situation.
Despite a Ministry of Labour decree giving travelling workers Monday off, the logistics of getting back and a fear of instability kept many workers from returning on time yesterday.
Injae Garment Co’s workforce was missing about 20 per cent of its staff when it opened yesterday, said owner Nam-Shik Kang. On holidays like Khmer New Year and the Water Festival, less than 15 per cent typically come back late, he added.
The level of missing workers at Injae yesterday, which amounted to about 400 people, would reduce production by half each day, Kang said. He hoped his full staff would return by the end of the week.
For Sophary, a 32-year-old Orange Trading employee who declined to give her full name, fear of a delayed pay cheque outweighed fear of chaos.
“I am also scared and worried about the security in Phnom Penh,” said Sophary, who added that when she returned to work from Svay Rieng by taxi yesterday, half the workers were absent. “But I have to come to work because my salary will be cut.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, also attributed the high level of garment worker absences to fears of election-related violence.
“They heard news about Phnom Penh, that there are soldiers and police blocking the road,” Chhun said.
Ken Loo, the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said the level of absenteeism happens after any extended holiday weekend. He guessed the majority of workers who missed their shifts yesterday were simply unable to secure transportation.
“I wouldn’t say [factory owners are] used to this, but they expect it to happen,” Loo said. “If they come back within the next two days, then it will just be normal.”
Although the garment industry is Cambodia’s largest, the post-election worker absences won’t cut into the overall economy, said Hiroshi Suzuki, chief executive of the Business Research Institute for Cambodia.
“Cambodia has 26 holidays in addition to 52 Sundays,” Suzuki said in an email. “I do not envision any serious impact by this delay to the Cambodian economy."
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL DE CARTERET