PHNOM PENH–Cambodian workers in the entertainment, construction, and casino sectors have recently appealed to the government to provide them with support for basic needs as they have been unemployed since businesses shut down due to the pandemic.
NGOs and other organizations working with people in those sectors are concerned that those workers may have been overlooked by the authorities as they made plans to help people who lost their jobs.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), expressed concern that there might be large-scale protests to request government’s help if the authorities don’t come up with ways to help informal-economy and vulnerable workers.
“They also pay taxes to the state,” he said. “I am worried that there will be protests and demands from other sectors, not only the sectors that have submitted request for help with the Ministry [of Labor and Vocational Training],” he said.
While the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a global crisis that had affected everyone, people in the lower-income categories are quicker at risk, which puts them below the poverty line, Tola said, adding that government assistance during the pandemic has been less effective in helping the most vulnerable in the country.
Between June 10 and 17, around 70 construction workers in Toul Kork and Russei Keo districts in Phnom Penh protested over unpaid salaries, while about 300 representatives of 2,000 NagaWorld workers submitted a petition for government assistance with living expenses, discounts on rental, water and electricity fees.
On June 15, Labor Minister Ith Samheng rejected a request presented by the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation representing KTVs, nightclubs, cinemas and casinos workers. They were asking for $40 per month and support to help with living expenses while they are unemployed—the government ordered the closing of those businesses to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Samheng had added that the government has put down a social assistance “Labor Cash Program” involving $100 million cash transfer to generate socio-economic benefits through the implementation of local small-scale physical infrastructure projects.
Moreover, the government has a package for social assistance intervention to help poor families whose livelihoods are affected by the pandemic and to which the entertainment sector workers would be eligible, Samheng said.
Asked about this, Tola said that the Ministry of Labor’s response appeared ambiguous, leaving the claimants unable to calm down. He suggested that the government reduce people’s expenses for water and electricity, delay repayment of bank debts, and subsidize some unemployed people.
In addition, the government should provide small and medium-size funding to the business sector so that businesses can pull through in spite of the economic situation caused by COVID-19, Tola added.
Meas Sok Sensan, spokesman for the Ministry of Finance, said that the government has worked hard to address the problems people, and especially the most vulnerable, face even though the result is not 100 percent perfect.
“[Garment] workers [who have been affected]… got part of their salaries from the government and from their employers,” he said. “By the end of the month, the government will be helping the poor on whom we have been collecting statistics.”
Fears are that many low-paid workers living in Phnom Penh, away from their hometowns or villages, will not benefit from government-assistance programs since they may not be included in the reports and statistics that are being compiled.