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UN: Workers’ plights need addressing

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Garment workers leave their factory in Phnom Penh’s Toul Sangke commune. Hong Menea

UN: Workers’ plights need addressing

The UN in Cambodia expressed concerns about the long-lasting impacts of Covid-19 on the socio-economic rights of garment workers.

In a press release on June 15, the UN said job losses and reduced income have made many workers struggle to meet their basic needs and many had taken out loans in the interim as a coping strategy.

“Many workers lack access to an adequate social safety net such as unemployment benefits, which place them at risk of falling into poverty and even hunger. The toll extends to garment workers’ families and the informal economy around factories.

“The [UN] is also concerned about conditions in quarantine facilities for garment workers who test positive, including a lack of information, hygiene supplies and PPE,” it said.

It noted that the pandemic and efforts to slow the spread of the virus led to factory closures, layoffs and unpaid absences, affecting the livelihoods of over 900,000 garment sector workers, 80 per cent of whom are women.

Since the pandemic began, garment exports dropped by around 9.9 per cent, leading to a 3.4 per cent reduction from the 11 per cent it contributed to gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019.

Through research conducted in May last year and in May and June this year, the UN said most workers have shown heightened concerns regarding personal finances, including being unable to pay back loans. They also had barriers to reporting Covid-19 symptoms because of fear of quarantine and the resultant loss of income.

It said it welcomed the Cambodian government’s efforts to prioritise Covid-19 vaccinations for the garment sector, the $40 monthly cash assistance to workers whose workplaces are suspended due to the pandemic and the recent one-time post-lockdown emergency cash assistance for workers.

The UN noted that it had provided support for this sector including assessments for factories, capacity development and virtual workshops that convened industry stakeholders together to discuss issues related to the sector.

It said it also engaged with factories and industry players on issues including occupational safety and health, gender equality, Covid-19 prevention, emergency preparedness and many others.

Cambodian Labour Confederation president Ath Thon agreed with the UN’s assessments, saying the government should pay more attention to women workers in this sector.

“Women workers already face many challenges at their work. When the pandemic happened, they faced even more challenges related to their livelihoods and their family burdens,” he said.

He recommended that the government provide assistance to every worker in the locked down areas, without any conditions attached. He said each worker should get at least $100 to enable them to survive this difficult period.

“The government provided workers with $40 and that’s good, but it should be more than that because each worker spends between $100 and $200 a month just to live. Moreover, this [$40] was just for some workers, not for everybody,” he said.

Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment on June 17.

Samheng Boros, secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, on June 17 thanked the UN for providing technical support to Cambodia in helping those in need and especially with identifying poor households for government support.

However, he said the government needs to pay attention to other people as well.

“During the lockdown, the government has also helped other businesses that faced challenges.

“But we did pay special attention to garment workers by not only providing them with cash assistance, but we also paid for their electricity and water bills and rental fees,” he said.

According to Boros, the government has provided cash assistance to more than 50,000 poor households in Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province as well as Preah Sihanouk province.

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