It has been one year since Cambodia’s economy and labour force has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but despite some hope sparked by the vaccine programmes, Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), said things have gotten worse for the workers in the Kingdom’s informal economy. In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Pao said something must be done quickly to prevent this from becoming a social crisis.
KT: As a unionist, what changes can you notice in the livelihood of informal economy workers in the past year, which is characterised by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Pao: Many informal economy workers are barely making ends meet. The household workers, whose incomes had helped improve their own economic situation and that of their families are losing jobs. Those who have been working for foreigners are also losing their jobs because their employers are not able to come back to the Kingdom while those working for local families do not want them to work as they are worried they may have COVID-19 or cannot afford to hire them due to their own financial problems. Meanwhile, Tuktuk drivers have seen a drop in revenue of up to 70 percent due to less clients but are still being asked to pay up to 15 percent of their income for using ride-hail technology. This has caused problems for these workers such as no money to pay the loans, not enough for food or nutrition for themselves and their families.
KT: With the recent influx of returning migrant workers from Thailand, do you think it will create an even bigger competition for the informal economy?
Pao: Yes. The existing workers and the returning migrant workers will compete for the shrinking markets of informal economic activities since companies and factories are not hiring many people these days.To make it worse, they will be competing with foreign workers such as Vietnamese and Chinese. In this situation, some may risk entering neighbouring countries illegally for job opportunities, which may even jeopardise their lives.
KT: If left unsolved, how do you think the situation will impact society and communities?
Pao: Unemployment and less jobs will lead to problems. Since informal economic activities contributes significantly to the national economy and GDP, the decline in this field will lead to a decline in the overall economy. It can increase criminal activities as poverty will push people to do anything to survive. Those planning illegal entry to neighbouring countries to find jobs can also fall victims to human trafficking and modern slavery.
KT: What do you think the government should do to assist the informal economy workers during this hard time?
Pao: Although the government has asked people with no jobs to turn to agriculture, it is obvious that the field, in its current state, is not able to absorb all the unemployed workers. Therefore, the Agriculture Ministry must do everything that is viable to expand this sector. More irrigation system needs to be established while the government must provide people with both skill training and credit, which would allow them to sustain them and their families’ needs.
The government should extend their social security programme so that they can at least fulfil their basic needs until they can get up on their own.
KT: And what do you think the workers themselves should do to get up on their own?
Pao: They must be made aware of upskilling and learn new skills to make a living now or after the pandemic is over. It is mainly up to themselves to survive this challenge.