COVID-19 Op-ed

Assessing the Social and Economic Rights of Cambodian Women Garment Workers amid Covid-19

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Sophorn TUY
Researcher/Librarian, Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law (CSHL), Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), Cambodia

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected  men and women differently (Durant, 2020). Researchers have been concerned with its impact to gender inequality around the world, particularly the financial impact, since the spread of the disease would exacerbate the amount of unpaid care work done (Promundo, 2020). In fact the research has found that women have experienced higher economic costs than men, but also had a higher risk of losing their jobs whist at the same time having multiple roles to perform (Durant, 2020).

According to the COVID-19 Regional Safety Assessment, Cambodia is ranked number 14 among 20 countries in the Asia-Pacific region (Deep Knowledge Group, 2020). The first positive case of the Covid-19 in Cambodia was officially announced on 27 January 2020 and the number increased to 122 by 12 April. Then after a further month without any cases, the number started to increase in the period of 21 May to 21 July to 197, of which 43 were women. So far, the recovery rate in Cambodia has been 71.07% (MoH, 2020). Most cases originated from people who returned from travel outside the country.  To protect social order and citizen’s health, the Law of the State of Emergency was proclaimed on 29 April 2020 in compliance with Article 22 of the Constitutional of the Kingdom of Cambodia.[1] Yet this law has not yet been proclaimed, as the Covid-19 numbers in Cambodian have not yet intensified.

Cambodian Women Garment Worker’s Economic Impacts in Time of the Covid-19

During the Covid-19 pandemic, all schools and universities have been closed. Whereas some state institutions, NGOs and private companies allowed their employees to work from home, some factories closed or suspended operations. In the meantime, for women who have children, they need to take care of them and manage the housework. And there are many workers in Cambodia who have lost their jobs or are expected to lose their jobs(Globe, 2020).

According to the report of International Labour Organization (ILO) 2018, there are 548 factories in Cambodia which employ 602,607 workers (ILO, 2018). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 410 factories in Cambodia have suspended operations, affecting over 240,000 workers (Sorn, 2020). In one factory, there were 763 workers who were left unpaid after the owners fled without paying them their due compensation (BHRRC, 2020).

A higher percentage of Cambodian women work in factories compared to men, with about 80% of women in the Cambodian labour force being factory workers. Thus, Covid-19 has exacerbated women’s economic stress, particularly their monthly income. Most of them spend their salary on rent and and other household expenses as well as sending a portion to their parents in their hometowns (Ros, 2020). Further, 90% of the workers have had loan at bank, microfinance institution or rural creditor (Sorn, 2020).

The Royal Government of Cambodia banned travelling for all Cambodia citizens particularly garment workers during Khmer New Year (KNY) on 13-16 April, although some workers ignored the prohibition and returned to their homelands. Then 5 000 workers were quarantined for 14 days without pay before returning to work (Sen David, 2020; Ros, 2020), and about 10 000 lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 fear after gathering in their home provinces during KNY (Sen David, 2020). Moreover, some landlords did not allow workers to return to their rooms unless they could prove that they are Covid-19 negative. And a female garment worker was fired from a factory because she refused to adhere to the government travel ban during Khmer New Year (Hoekstra, 2020).

Cambodian Government’s Implementation to Protect and Promote Women’s Economic during the Covid-19

Based on article 31 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Cambodian government recognized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all relevant international human rights treaties. The Cambodian state ratified the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1992. Hence the government has duties to ensure that everyone has enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights without discrimination. It also developed the National Strategic Development Plan, 2019-2023 for promoting, protecting and empowering women and for implementing the Rectangular Strategy (RS) Phase IV in order to grow employment equity and efficiency throughout the period up until 2050 (RGC, 2018). Lastly, the government has integrated with the ASEAN economic area and assigned all line ministries to implement gender equity for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[2].

As part of protecting people from the Covid-19 virus, the Cambodian government issued announcements and disseminated information on safety measures in the media. All KTV (karaoke clubs) and movie theaters and public events in Cambodia have been temporarily suspended since 17 March 2020 (ODC, 2020). And all schools have been closed since 14 April 2020 (GCNP, 2020).

Khmer New Year celebrations this year were also suspended to control the spread of Covid-19 (ODC, 2020). Other religious and mass gatherings were also banned (Khmer Times, 2020). Similarly, a limitation of movement was also imposed restricting travel to other provinces, except for business, work, health care and other necessary purposes (Sun, 2020).

The Cambodian government announced in early July a payment of 40 USD to 70 000 workers laid-off due to the Covid-19 situation (Sorn, 2020). Though this amount is less than 40% of the minimum wage, it is just enough for making rental payments, but not enough for food, loans and remittances to parents and/or children in workers’ hometowns (Hoekstra, 2020).

Conclusion

The Cambodian government has comprehensive laws and policies in order to protect, promote, and empower women, particularly in improving employment equity. However, there has been de facto employment disparity in Cambodian during the Covid-19 pandemic this year. Most factories in Cambodia have been suspended and closed, hence as 80% of factory workers are women, they are indeed facing immediate financial crisis.

The government should cooperate with relevant stakeholders to provide enough support to the laid-off workers whilst factory operations are suspended. Otherwise, they should help diversify production to products that can be  exported to international markets. Furthermore, they should provide financial and technical support as well as promote agriculture for internal as well as international markets.

References:

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[1] Article 22 “When the nation faces danger, the King shall make a public proclamation placing the country in a state of emergency, after unanimous agreement from the Prime Minister, the President of the National Assembly and the President of the Senate.”
[2] Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls


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