COVID-19 Op-ed

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cambodia’s GTF workers

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Joana M. Cassinerio
PhD Candidate, Institute of Human Rights & Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Thailand.  itsjoanamaria@gmail.com

COVID-19 has so far had devastating effects on individuals, states and businesses alike. For example, Cambodia – a country which relies on foreign direct investments (FDIs) as much as it depends on its four economic pillars, i.e. hospitality and tourism; agriculture; manufacturing; and construction – has been tremendously affected by the pandemic. This is especially critical in times of national political instability as well as economic uncertainty due to the European Union’s partial withdrawal of Cambodia’s export privileges under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.

The sector currently being at risk the most is the country’s garments, textile and footwear (GTF) sector which employs more than 750,000 workers, most of whom are internal women migrants from remote provinces. Due to the significant size of its workforce as well as its capacity to produce goods in values exceeding billions of dollars annually, the GTF sector pointedly contributes to the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the sector’s reliance on raw materials from abroad has meant direct and negative effects due to the breakdown of important supply chains in China. As a result, a significant part of Cambodia’s GTF sector is currently unable to produce any goods, leading to the closures of many factories in the recent past and future (Kelly, 2020).

In the face of this global health crisis, the ILO (2020) recently issued a warning concerning global unemployment as well as underemployment in different sectors and industries, predicting working poverty of those who are already at risk, specifically women: Under COVID-19,  ‘’working poverty is likely to increase significantly. The strain on incomes resulting from the decline in economic activity will devastate workers close to or below the poverty line… Women are over-represented in more affected sectors or in occupations that are at the front line of dealing with the pandemic’’ (International Labour Organization, pp.5-6, 2020). In an attempt to minimise the economic damage and steer away from any potential political unrest, the Cambodian government recently obliged factories to pay their workforce 40% of their minimum wage and offered an additional 20% paid through governmental funds if the affected workers attended training courses (Clean Clothes Campaign, 2020; Hutt, 2020; Sokummono, 2020). In reality, some factories have already begun to lay off their workers without any pay (Kelly, 2020), which is to be expected in a country that has created and enabled rather dysfunctional law-implementing mechanisms as well as a rule of law that is tailored towards the benefits and powers of Cambodia’s ruling elite.

To conclude, COVID-19 is not ‘the great equaliser’ as superstar Madonna recently informed us from the comfort of her bathtub. This pandemic hits those hardest who are already at the core of the more vulnerable parts of societies around the world – be their vulnerability defined by gender, income group, level of education and skills, or else. Cambodia’s mostly-female garment sector is a case in point: The very real threat of losing their occupation (and therefore income) is only the cherry on top of the common exploitation of labourers in a billion-dollar sector. Therefore, the Cambodian government needs to step up its game to mitigate future ripple effects of the COVID-19 crisis in one of its most fundamental sectors. For example, policy adaptation and response are essential, but first and most importantly for the protection of workers. Also, the creation of social dialogue is indispensable: ‘’Tripartite social dialogue between Governments and Workers’ and Employers’ organisations is a key tool for developing and implementing sustainable solutions’’ (International Labour Organization, p.3, 2020). So far, the Cambodian government has not shown too much of a willingness and understanding to come to terms with the seriousness of COVID-19, and what the failure in effectively and efficiently addressing this could mean for the country’s future. In their current forms, neither Hun Sen nor the politically-biased and tainted Kingdom he created have any capacity to deal with this crisis. In order to do so, key decision-makers must put political differences and sovereignty as well as economic priorities aside. It can only be hoped that the ruling elite, for once, puts the rights of the Khmer people before its own.

List of References

Clean Clothes Campaign (2020) Live-blog: How the Coronavirus influences garment workers in supply chains, Clean Clothes Campaign. Available at: https://cleanclothes.org/news/2020/live-blog-on-how-the-coronavirus-influences-workers-in-supply-chains (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

Glahan, S. (2019) ‘Hun Sen learns how to fake democracy’, Bangkok Post, 14 November. Available at:
https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1793859/hun-sen-learns-how-to-fake-democracy (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

Human Rights Watch (2020) Cambodia: COVID-19 clampdown on free speech, Human Rights Watch. Available at:
https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/24/cambodia-covid-19-clampdown-free-speech (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

Hutt, D. (2020) ‘Asia’s garment makers hang by a Covid-19 thread’, Asia Times. Available at:
https://asiatimes.com/2020/03/asias-garment-makers-hang-by-a-covid-19-thread/ (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

International Labour Organization (2020) COVID-19 pandemic: Almost 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide as a result of COVID-19, says ILO, International Labour Organization. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_738742/lang–en/index.htm (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

Kelly, A. (2020) ‘Garment workers face destitution as Covid-19 closes factories’, The Guardian, 19 March. Available at:
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/mar/19/garment-workers-face-destitution-as-covid-19-closes-factories (Accessed: 26 March 2020).

Sokummono, K. (2020) ‘Hun Sen’s plan to prop up economy reveals concerns over EBA, Coronavirus’, Voice of Asia Cambodia, 25 February. Available at: https://www.voacambodia.com/a/hun-sen-s-plan-to-prop-up-economy-reveals-concerns-over-eba-coronavirus-/5302588.html (Accessed: 26 March 2020).


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