More than 50,000 Cambodian garment workers have lost their jobs as struggling businesses have cut back to try to stay afloat while others have closed, Radio Free Asia has learned.
To date, 10 Cambodian factories have closed completely and another 500 have suspended production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in December 2019.
The government has cited the Russia-Ukraine war as the main reason for the industry’s inability to recover from recessions it experienced during the pandemic and other issues. But experts say a better explanation is that 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 company closures and layoffs, the Cambodian National Employment Agency, under the Ministry of Labour, held a career expo on Friday in the southwestern province of Kampong Speu, inviting job seekers to apply for jobs in 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 laid off from his job for the past three months, told the FRG Khmer Service that he will not apply for those jobs because he believes that the new factories are not stable and will probably not respect the rights of workers. workers. .
“Working conditions in garment factories have not improved in the last 10 years,” he said, adding that he has been working in the sector for the last seven years and has been abused and exploited.
“I only earned enough to get by. If I couldn’t work, I would starve,” she said. “Work is enough to live another day.”
huge group of workers
Ath Thun of the Cambodian Labor Confederation said he appreciated the government’s efforts to get laid-off workers back to factories, but urged the spending ministry to provide more employment opportunities for farm workers as well.
“It’s very difficult to look for a job because too many people are out of work,” he said. “They are trying to work in illegal establishments and in the entertainment sector.”
Many rural Cambodians also venture to big cities like Phnom Penh in search of work, only to quickly spend their meager savings and fall into debt, Ath Thun said.
He said the government should also sort out its issues with the US and the European Union so they can comply with their respective preferential trade status schemes.
Cambodia’s Labor Minister Ith Samheng said in a statement Wednesday that the government and factories will pay laid-off workers between $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 onwards.
“Based on Hun Sen’s recommendation to help stabilize workers’ living standards and safeguard companies due to low production during this global financial crisis, factories should talk to workers to take turns going to work if they are temporarily laid off,” the statement said. .
Garment factory workers, meanwhile, told Radio Free Asia that 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 about the human rights situation in Cambodia, withdrew around 20 percent of the EBA scheme in 2020, equivalent to around $1.09 billion of the country’s exports bound for Europe.
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 a further suspension of the EBA 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 affected his life. He said that he is concerned that the elections will not be free and fair, and that Cambodia will lose EBA status altogether.
“I urge the government to try to respect democratic principles so that the EU and the US 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 moment. I hope the government fully respects freedom of expression and political parties,” he said.
Keo Boeun, another garment worker, said he was among many who were laid off and fell into debt traps set by predatory banks. He said that the government should stop violating human rights.
“I want Samdech to follow the (EU resolution) requests,” he said, using an honorary title to refer to the country’s leader, Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985. “If they ignore him, we will have no buyers to export to .”
Katta Orn of the government-backed Human Rights Committee said the government is not afraid of losing EBA status because Cambodia will sooner or later 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 in Cambodia. Katta Orn also said that she hopes that the upcoming elections will be totally fair.
“Cambodians enjoy peace and freedom, and other political parties can work freely and the results of the upcoming elections will respect the will of the people,” he said.
Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.