Klien Savoeun’s hand absent-mindedly drifts to her stomach as she sits on a bamboo platform in her Sa’ang district home. Her lightly-freckled face breaks into a smile when asked if her incoming child is kicking.

“Yes, especially during the night time. It catches me by surprise,” she says. “I lie awake after the baby kicks.”

But in recent months, it’s not just the kicking keeping her awake. After her contract at a local garment factory was not renewed in November, the 32-year-old has worried about how to provide for her family when the baby comes in two months’ time.

Savoeun is just one of a number of women finding themselves out of a job at a crucial moment in their lives. Whether or not she and her coworkers at King Way Enterprises were deliberately targeted for being pregnant, or are merely casualties of an industry slowdown, is difficult to know.

But as an expectant mother, Savoeun is in a cohort more likely to lose their jobs than her peers, labour advocates say. It’s a problem exacerbated by the prevalence of short-term contracts that leave factory workers – 9 out of 10 of whom are women – without the protections of the labour law.

Despite a string of populist promises from Prime Minister Hun Sen – who has spent recent months launching a charm offensive seemingly aimed at wooing the garment worker voting bloc – women continue to face discrimination on the factory floor, seemingly at every stage of their pregnancy.

The premier has met multiple times a week with thousands of Cambodia’s garment workers, posing for selfies and promising them free health care, two years of free access to public buses and a $100 baby bonus.

Then, in a move that briefly heartened labour rights advocates, he took aim in a speech at the widespread use of short-term contracts – which last one, three or six months – calling for greater job security for workers.

Pech Sokun, 25, is due to give birth to her first child next week, but after years of working on short-term contracts she now finds herself out of a job at a critical point. Heng Chivoan

Currently, after two years, employees are supposed to be switched to “unfixed duration contracts”, which would grant them more protections. In practice, however, workers are often employed on a series of short-term contracts that stretch out for years. Sometimes their contracts are allowed to lapse by employers, who then rehire them months later, forcing them to start the process over again.

Hun Sen in his speech called for a “proper solution” to the instability caused by these contracts, but draft amendments to the Labour Law – which came to light just after the speech – contradict the premier’s rhetoric. They lay the groundwork for employees to be stuck on these fixed-duration contracts for even longer – four years, instead of the current two.

While the perpetual use of such contracts creates uncertainties for workers of all stripes, pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to having their employment abruptly terminated – at a time in their life when a stable job is what they need most.

Oun Pisey, 27, has worked at Sun Well Shoes on Veng Sreng Boulevard for the past five years – always on six-month contracts.

“Now that I am six months pregnant, my contract was not renewed,” she said. She said the decision wasn’t due to a mistake she had made in her work – her line manager had requested her to stay on, but the general manager did not agree, she was told.

Pisey was not alone. She was one of at least four pregnant women not to have their contracts renewed at the factory, according to a staff member who asked to be identified as “Nika”, as she feared retribution from her employers.

“For workers where you can already see they’re pregnant, the factory did not renew the contract for another six months,” Nika said.

When reached for comment, Sun Well Shoes representative Sorn Sumith questioned where reporters got their information, before diverting all questions to the general manager, who did not respond to phone calls or emails yesterday.

Pisey asked her factory about the prime minister’s $100 baby bonus, and was told she wouldn’t receive it. “They said because my contract ends when I am six months pregnant, I don’t get that benefit because I did not give birth yet,” she said.

Under the labour law, women are entitled to 90 days of maternity leave, paid at half their salary by their employer. In addition to the baby bonus, they’re also entitled to be paid 70 percent of their salary during that period by the National Social Security Fund.

“I won’t get any benefits for my baby when I give birth,” Pisey said.

Somalay So, a program officer at labour rights group Solidarity Center, said there have been cases where even enquiring about the premier’s $100 promise can put a target on workers’ backs for dismissal.

“When a worker heard about Hun Sen’s $100 baby bonus, she asked the factory if she could get that kind of benefit – then the factory just dismissed her,” Somalay said, noting that unions had intervened and the workers were re-employed.

Mao Sreymom, a local union leader at Cambodia Alliance Trade Union (CATU), said there were instances of women being targeted at the start of their pregnancy.

One worker was dismissed because she was often sick and asked for time off.

“I explained to them that she has morning sickness as she’s three months pregnant . . . so the factory should understand that,” she said.

After a long discussion, her contract was renewed. But not all cases are so easily won – last year, a factory terminated the contract of a pregnant woman, prompting Sreymom to enter negotiations, before filing a complaint to the Ministry of Labour. When that failed, the case was brought to the Arbitration Council, who ruled in her favour and ordered for the factory to re-instate her.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dy Sokhom, a local union leader at King First Factory, said that in October one woman did not have her contract renewed while she was taking her maternity leave – a direct contradiction of the labour law, which forbids termination during the three-month leave.

“Our union took action against the discrimination,” Sokhom said. The woman was now re-employed, on an unfixed duration contract.

King First Administration Manager Pon Chan denied such a case happened in his Kampong Speu factory, though he admitted it could have happened at their Phnom Penh branch.

“There is no form of discrimination against pregnant workers, before or after they give birth. If we fire them it is against the law – pregnant workers are protected by the law,” he said.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour said the law was robust in its protection of expectant mothers. “The pregnant woman is well protected by our labour law unless she makes a serious mistake and her firing is approved by the labour inspector,” he said in a message. “If she is fired she will not get the wage but under the health equity fund, she still gets a free baby delivery in all public health centres.”

Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng told reporters last week that soon-to-be mothers who are terminated or whose contracts are not renewed would still get the $100 baby bonus.

More pressing for Savoeun and her colleagues, though, is the question of NSSF payment – 70 percent of their salary for three months. While the law appears to say the NSSF money will not be granted to women who are dismissed more than two months before they are due to take maternity leave, labour experts and officials were unable to give clear consensus on the matter.

It’s a key concern for Lai Chamthoeun, 31, from Kien Svay, who works at King Way Enterprises with Savoeun.

Chamthoeun, whose baby was due Wednesday, multitasks as she talks. Her son and daughter dangle from a window, pushing sweets into her hands to unwrap.

“When they saw I was pregnant, they changed the contract from three months to one month,” she said. “The factory claimed there was not a lot of work for workers. They want to finish all the pregnant workers’ contracts. For those who are not pregnant, they also changed from three months to one month, but all still have work.”

Chamtheoun works in quality control and gets paid per article of clothing inspected – which can fetch up to $300 per month.

“I was so excited when I heard the PM announce the New Year benefit, because my baby is not very far away. It was exciting. But a moment later, they finished our contracts . . . so I was really upset about that,” she says.

Both Chamthoeun and Savoeun worry whether they will be taken back in by the factory after giving birth to their children. Heavily pregnant, neither woman has been able to find substantial work since October.

Savoeun said an administration official, Eang Vanda, told her the factory would probably want “younger workers” – under 30 – who can “work longer”.

When reached, Vanda hung up on reporters without answering questions.

To the factory’s credit, the pregnant women were paid their maternity leave entitlements, ranging from $300 to $400, said employee Pech Sokun.

Prime Minister Hun Sen poses for a selfie with garment workers during a visit to a factory in Phnom Penh last August. Facebook

At 25, Sokun is expecting her first child, a baby girl, next week. She’s both excited and nervous, but the lack of a stable income over the past three months has tipped the scales towards the latter.

“I need money during this period before I give birth to prepare, if something goes wrong,” she said.

“If I don’t have enough money, this can cause other problems. I might have to turn to loans.”

Labour advocates agree the practice of firing pregnant workers at such a volatile and vulnerable time is deeply concerning, albeit difficult to quantify.

“This is a big problem. . . because Cambodia’s garment factory workers are 90 percent women, it’s very important for them,” Solidarity Centre’s Somalay said.

Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) recently found that 3 percent of factories – 13 out of 442 surveyed – had failed to comply with the law on dismissing pregnant workers.

BFC research so far “has found little evidence that direct discrimination (ie termination) based on pregnancy happens at a large scale,” ILO-BFC Manager Esther Germans said in an email, but she said more research into the topic was necessary, with union representatives reporting a number of anecdotal cases in a meeting late last year.

“To our knowledge, no substantial research has been done to get to exact numbers. That is also the reasons for the above research: the objective is get more insight into the incidence of discriminatory practices related to pregnant garment workers.”

For CATU President Yang Sophorn, there was no question discrimination persisted and ultimately undercut the government’s on-paper benefits.

“I thinks it’s good progress that the government provides lots of benefits for the pregnant women workers . . . but in the meantime, it may prove meaningless while factories fire pregnant workers, or don’t renew their contracts when they end,” she said.

Central’s Mouen Tola said it was a “serious problem” and the almost ubiquitous use of short term contracts was at the heart of the matter.

Clean Clothes Campaign Urgent Appeals Coordinator Carin Leffler said an estimated 80 percent of Cambodia’s exporting garment factories used these fixed-duration contracts (FDCs).

“We know that workers employed on FDCs face several challenges,” she said in an email. Many workers on such contracts lose their maternity leave benefits “when the employer chooses not to renew the contract prior to delivery, only to rehire the worker once the child is born”.

The short-term contracts have ripple effects throughout the factories, Leffler said, with workers also avoiding trade unions for fear of their contracts not being renewed.

“They find it hard to oppose illegal or unsustainable work practices, such as excessive overtime, sexual harassment, high production targets and deduction from wages as a disciplinary measure,” Leffler said.

“We have heard about workers taking abortions in fear of losing their jobs,” she said. “This is a terribly tragic outcome of the use of FDCs.”