More than 50,000 Cambodian garment workers have lost their jobs as struggling companies have made cutbacks to try to stay afloat while others have closed, Radio Free Asia has learned.
To date, 10 Cambodian factories have completely shut down and 500 others have suspended production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Dec. 2019.
The government has cited the war between Russia and Ukraine as the main reason for the industry’s inability to recover from downturns it experienced during the pandemic and other woes. But experts say a better explanation is because Cambodia has lost some of its preferential trade advantages with the European Union due to human rights concerns – which means higher tariffs on exports – and that the country risks losing more.
In response to the company closures and layoffs, the Cambodia’s National Employment Agency, under the Ministry of Labor, held a career expo Friday in the southwestern province of Kampong Speu, where it invited jobseekers to apply for work at five different factories. The plan is to hire at least 5,250 people, the ministry said in a statement.
Kem Sopeng, a garment union representative who has been fired from his job for the past three months told RFA’s Khmer Service that he will not apply for those jobs because he thinks the new factories are not stable and they likely won’t respect workers’ rights.
“The working conditions in garment factories have not improved over the past 10 years,” he said, adding that he has been working in the sector for the past seven years, and has been abused and exploited.
“I just made enough to get by. If I couldn’t work, I would starve,” he said. “The work is just enough to live another day.”
Huge pool of workers
Ath Thun of the Cambodian Labour Confederation said he welcomed the government’s efforts to get the laid off workers back into factories, but he urged the ministry of expenditures to provide more employment opportunities to agricultural workers too.
"It is very difficult to seek employment because too many people are out of jobs,” he said. “They are trying to work in illegal establishments and the entertainment sector.”
Many rural Cambodians also venture to large cities like Phnom Penh in search of work, only to quickly burn through their meager savings and take on debt, said Ath Thun.
He said the government should also fix its issues with the U.S. and the European Union so they can be in good standing with their respective preferential trade status schemes.
Cambodia’s Labor Minister Ith Samheng said in a statement Wednesday that the government and the factories will pay laid off workers between US$25 and $70 depending on how long they have been unemployed.
The ministry will provide payments to garment and bag factories that have permission from the ministry to suspend operations from April 1 onward.
"Based on Hun Sen's recommendation to help stabilize workers’ living standards and safeguard businesses due to low production during this global financial crisis, the factories should discuss with workers to take turns coming to work if they are being laid off temporarily," the statement said.
Garment factory workers, meanwhile, told Radio Free Asia they were concerned about an EU resolution that would further suspend Cambodia from its Everything But Arms, or EBA, status, which Cambodia needs to maintain preferential trade advantages in Europe.
The regional bloc, concerned over the human rights situation in Cambodia, withdrew about 20 percent of the EBA scheme in 2020, equivalent to about $1.09 billion of the country’s Europe-bound exports
On Friday, the European parliament adopted a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional release of opposition leader Kem Sokha who was recently sentenced to 27 years in prison and is currently serving his term under house arrest.
The resolution also called for the country to hold free and fair general elections next year and called for further EBA suspension if the elections “deviate from international standards” or if rights violations in Cambodia continue.
Link between politics and trade
Meach Piseth, a garment worker, told RFA that the partial removal of EBA status has already impacted his life. He said he is worried the election will not be free and fair, and Cambodia will lose EBA status completely.
"I urge the government to try to respect democratic principles so that the EU and U.S. will return our EBA and GSP,” he said, the latter acronym referring to the Generalized System of Preferences used in the United States.
“The government must understand this difficult time. I hope that the government will fully respect freedom of expression and political parties," he said.
Keo Boeun, another garment worker, said he was among many that have been laid off and have fallen into debt traps laid by predatory banks. He said the government should stop violating human rights.
“I want Samdech to follow the [EU resolution] requests,” he said, using an honorific title to refer to the country’s leader Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985. “If they ignore it, we won’t have buyers to export to.”
Katta Orn of the government-backed Human Rights Committee said that the government is not afraid of losing EBA status because Cambodia sooner or later will lose its status anyway.
He said that the EU has already removed 20 percent of EBA from Cambodia but it has not had any effect on Cambodia. Katta Orn also said he expects the upcoming elections will be totally fair.
"Cambodians enjoy peace and freedom, and other political parties can work freely and the upcoming election results will respect the people’s will," he said.
Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.