As fears of the omicron variant’s rapid spread begin to weigh heavily on Cambodia, the country’s ministry of labor is rolling out new standard operating procedures to pivot its factories toward a “new normal” of living and working with the coronavirus.
“Implementing these [procedures] will ensure the sustainability of the business production chain and maintain [the] stability of employment and income, which are beneficial to both employers and workers, and they will prevent risks due to the spread of infectious diseases, especially Covid-19,” labor minister Ith Sam Heng said at a press conference earlier this month.
The pandemic was a gut punch to Cambodia’s gross domestic product, which contracted by 3 percent in 2020 but rebounded by 4.5 percent in 2021, according to the World Bank. To continue the country’s socioeconomic recovery, Prime Minister Hun Sen had announced in October that the government will no longer shut down schools, factories and other establishments in the event of an outbreak.
“If a factory has a few people testing positive, just send them off for treatment,” he said at the time. “Don’t close the entire factory. In the past, even a single transmission case at a factory would lead to an entire shutdown.” Facilities only need to be disinfected to be safe, he added.
The new, more extensive workplace procedures include guidelines for conducting risk assessments, minimizing contagion risk and spread, and responding to positive cases in line with International Labour Organization and World Health Organization advice. Sam Heng said that as Covid-19 continues to mutate into new forms like omicron, balancing factory production and employment stability with public health must be Cambodia’s “new normal.”
Over the weekend, Cambodia’s health ministry reported that the number of confirmed omicron cases has reached 332 after 45 new ones were called in. It said that 29 of the infections were imported and 16 were locally transmitted. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 16-million-strong population has received one shot of the vaccine, while more than 95 percent has had a second dose and more than 27 percent a third, thanks to China’s donations of Sinovac and Sinopharm. In response to the new variant’s high transmissibility, however, the ministry is preparing to administer a fourth dose to high-risk groups in the capital of Phnom Penh using its more limited stockpile of the more effective Pfizer vaccine.
On Tuesday, the Cambodian government also revealed that it will be stopping financial support for more than 320,000 garment, footwear and travel-goods workers who were laid off because of the slowdown in orders. Many of the shuttered factories have now reopened, it said, and business is getting back on track.
Labor ministry spokesman Heng Sour told the Phnom Penh Post that 552 factories had suspended some parts of their employment contracts between the second quarter of 2020 to December 31. The government had provided $40 per month for affected workers, he said, spending more than $23 million.
But although garment workers received a $2 bump to their minimum wage in September, most are still struggling to eke out a living on $194 per month. The increase fell short of the $12 campaigners fought for, resulting in labor watchdogs such as the Ethical Trading Initiative calling on brands to work with suppliers and unions to establish a “clear plan” toward a living wage.
“Even in an emerging economy like that of Cambodia’s, $194 does not enable a worker to meet their basic needs, let alone fully support their family and build resilience for the future,” the organization said in October. “While this is an agreed minimum wage, we call on all responsible brands to demonstrate that they value the workers in their supply chain by ensuring that the factories from which they source pay a wage workers can live on.”