The future of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the worst socio-economic crisis the world has ever faced, remains uncertain, despite some positive news on the vaccine progress. In Cambodia, the garment industry has been hit hard by the crisis, causing many factories to shut down and tens of thousands of workers to become unemployed. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, National Trade Union Confederation president Far Saly says the workers in this sector are struggling while the unions are seeing their power to help them fade.
KT: What has life been like for workers in the garment industry over the past few months?
Saly: We can see that the overall situation has improved a little bit, but at the same time we have also seen a decrease in the workers’ bargaining power. Their benefits and working conditions have deteriorated while the employers keep using COVID-19 as an excuse to prevent the workers from asking for better working conditions and salaries. However, many workers have already been laid off. According to the Garment Manufacturing Association in Cambodia (GMAC), by July about 400 garments, footwear and travel goods factories in Cambodia had suspended their operations, leaving over 150,000 workers jobless due to the pandemic. These numbers should be higher now. We are also worried about the loss of EBA, which could lead to the loss of a lot of money in the industry.
KT: What are the current challenges faced by the unions?
Saly: We are losing our power to demand higher base salaries for workers. For 2021, we did our best, but we only managed to raise the minimum wage by $2 for the country’s garment and footwear industry. But, we do have a reason for that. With a plummet in overseas orders, factories are facing financial problems, and we definitely cannot force money out of them. However, if the situation gets better in 2021, we will demand higher wages for our workers. Even now, we can see that some factories offer higher than the $192-per-month minimum wage, which at least provides us with hope.
KT: What has happened to workers who were laid off due to factory closures?
Saly: Most of them cannot find other jobs, mainly because very few factories are recruiting and they do not have the skills to work in other sectors. To make matters worse, they also have to compete with returning migrant workers from neighbouring countries. It is a very hard time for everyone, especially for unemployed and unskilled workers. They simply stay home and rely on the assistance provided by the government.
KT: How can these problems be solved?
Saly: The government, especially the Ministry of Labour, needs to provide free training to prepare unskilled and laid-off workers for the sectors which are still thriving. Those include IT, video design, video editing, mechanical, agriculture and so on. For those who are from rural areas, I believe that advanced farming skills are best for them since they can go back to their home in the province to work on their family farm or in paddy fields, which will allow them to earn enough to feed themselves and their families. I am very happy to see that the ministry has begun doing this.
I also hope that the government will work with microfinance institutions (MFIs) to lower loan interests or restructure loans. I can see that many workers owe them money, and now without jobs, they are finding it hard to pay them back.
KT: How long do you think the crisis will last?
Saly: Despite the positive news of vaccinations, ADB predicts that COVID-19’s impact on the economy will prevail until 2024. If this is true, it means the situation of our workers in the garment industry will be dire. The government needs to diversify both the economy and the labour market to prepare for this, while attracting more investors. Cambodia has to draw more foreign direct investment from more countries – such as Japan, Thailand and the US. The country cannot depend too much on Chinese investment.
Meanwhile, I call on all the workers in Cambodia to sign up for vocational training to increase their qualifications. They need to help themselves first before anyone can help them.