COVID-19 Op-ed

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

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Joana M. CassinerioPhD
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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