Oxfam and several partner organisations arranged a national forum on “Social Protection for Informal Economy Workers” to discuss the current situation of Cambodia’s informal workers and to gather input for a request to the government to ease the conditions for them to access the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

The forum was held on July 21 in Phnom Penh with participants from the government, union leaders, partner organisations, and local private-sector leaders.

The eventexplored the definition of informal workers, and provided an opportunity for participants to discuss procedures such as registration for access to social benefits and protections, and how it can improve the standard of living of workers, especially women.

Phean Sophoan, director of Oxfam in Cambodia, underscored the importance of the forum, noting that almost 200 informal workers had offered their input.

“Their voices are important if we want to understand their challenges, and their assessment of NSSF, including whether they would be open to paying contributions … [so] they could receive its benefits,” she said.

Sophoan stressed that social protectionsare key tools to support the most vulnerable, especially the informal workers who meaningfully contribute to economic development. With the Covid-19 crisis waning, it is especially important to reduce their risks of falling back into poverty, she said.

“Government policies do not always cover them, and they can be very vulnerable to risks related to income insecurity. Their kindtend not to receive health care or accident insurance. This is why Oxfam and our partner organisations are working hard to make the government aware of the challenges these people face, and bring them together to find solutions,” she added.

She said that the three main social protections they need are: employment security, occupational accident and disease insurance, and unemployment benefits.

Informal worker Rorm Touch, 58, affirmed her desire for an NSSF card, saying that it would help her with medical expenses.

“I do not have an NSSF card, so when I go to hospital, I spend a lot of money. That is why I want a card. If I am required to contribute money, I am willing to. Of course it can only be as much as I can afford, since I run a business out of home where nothing is constant – I could earn a lot, or little.

“As an example, if a 20,000 riel [$5] monthly contribution is required, those of us [with low incomes] should be granted a more favourable rate of just 10,000 riel,” she suggested.

Sim Art, who sells boiled tubers and bananas on the street, similarly commented that she is always reluctant to go to hospital when she or a family member gets sick, turning instead to cheap, traditional remedies.

“When I feel unwell, I keep it to myself, as I don’t have the money to spend. I wouldn’t have enough money to pay were I to be hospitalised,” she said, also admitting that she was unclear about how the NSSF worked.

Art said she grosses 15,000-20,000 riel a day from sales, which covers rent and utilities, but is hardly enough to buy food or pay down debt.

For reference, 34 per cent of Cambodians or some 1.3 million households were living in debt or faced liabilities in 2019-2020, according to the Socio-Economic Survey by the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics (NIS).

This represents a 2.5 per cent uptick from 2017 – or 24.1 per cent from 2014 – with average household loan size surging by 85 per cent to 17.7 million riel, from 9.6 million riel in 2017.