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Outbreak Leaves Garment Workers Stranded and Unemployed

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to shut borders and crack down on internal movement, millions of garment workers in countries such as Thailand and India are finding themselves stranded, unemployed and largely bereft of social safety nets.

The situation is especially precarious for migrant workers who are caught in a kind of limbo: Not only have they been laid off because of the steep falloff in garment orders but they also cannot return home.

The Thai government’s recent shutdown, for instance, has cast adrift millions of migrant workers who didn’t scramble back to neighboring Cambodia, Myanmar and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic before the barriers fell last week.

“Migrant workers are now unable to work as they planned,” Suthasinee Kaewleklai, a project coordinator of the Thailand-based Migrant Workers Rights Network, told Al Jazeera on Monday. “Their lives are made more difficult now and are living in fear.”

Suthasinee said the Thai government is only offering limited assistance, such as temporary visa extensions. While migrants can also apply for welfare through a “jobless policy,” this is rarely extended to migrant workers, she noted.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that between four and five million migrant workers were living in Thailand when it announced broad lockdowns and a state of emergency on Thursday. The number could be higher because of undocumented workers.

“Thailand is at a turning point in the outbreak and the situation could get a lot worse,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said in a televised speech in the capital of Bangkok. “It’s important that we impose stricter rules to reduce the spread.”

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Thailand reported 143 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, bringing the total to 1,388 infections and six deaths.

Some medical experts have expressed concerns that the mass returns to Cambodia, which has confirmed 96 cases of COVID-19 to date, and Myanmar, which has reported just five, could have unintended consequences. Laos, for instance, saw the number of cases of coronavirus double last week from three to six.

“There is a risk that these returns could lead to the seeding of new clusters of the virus in areas of return, transmission among returnees during crowded buses and border crossings, and among those held in collective settings for quarantine,” Dr. Patrick Duigan, IOM’s regional migration health specialist, said in a statement Friday.

“Many of them come from rural communities in Myanmar, Cambodia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which are relatively unprepared for monitoring, testing or treating COVID-19 cases,” he added. “Unlike the patterns from other countries where the majority of cases start in urban areas, in these three countries of return, rural areas may drive transmission.”

Cambodia has even asked its migrant workers to shelter in place, although the appeal did little to stem the flow of workers infiltrating its borders last week. Officials say only 35 of the around 15,000 Cambodian migrant workers who returned from Thailand tested positive for COVID-19, but Interior Minister Sar Kheng admitted to Voice of America Khmer that the government was incapable of testing everyone. Nor could authorities monitor or enforce a 14-day quarantine for all 15,000 returnees.

In India, where only manufacturing facilities supplying to hospitals have been allowed to stay open, activists say an estimated 300,000 garment workers are crammed into factory hostels despite calls for social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

“Hostel conditions are not ideal at all under the circumstances,” R. Karuppusamy, director of Indian nonprofit Rights Education and Development Centre, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday. “We are very concerned for these young workers as many have been in and out of the factory before the lockdown was announced.”

India has confirmed at least 1,071 cases of the coronavirus, with 29 deaths, though officials say the nation is only weeks away from a major uptick in infections that could overpower its shaky public health system.

The Southern India Mills’ Association (SIMA), a trade body that represents roughly 500 factories, has told members to provide all workers on their premises with “due care.” It has also urged factories to pay their workers at least half of their wages while closed. (The federal government and Tamil Nadu state have instructed factories to pay salaries and provide workers with food and shelter during the shutdown.)

“But there are challenges and social distancing is probably the toughest,” Selvaraju Kandaswamy, SIMA’s general secretary, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

SIMA is asking the government to allow the partial reopening of factories to enable shift work, which could reduce the number of workers in hostel rooms at any one time.

“We want to start production so that workers are not sitting idle in rooms,” Kandaswamy said. “It will help in social distancing as well since rooms will not be overcrowded. We understand the implications of coronavirus and [the] wellbeing of workers is of utmost importance.”