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What's Worse, Hunger or COVID: Phnom Penh Street Vendors Ask Themselves Daily

Khim Ha sells fried noodles in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomouk quarter, Dec. 10, 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
Khim Ha sells fried noodles in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomouk quarter, Dec. 10, 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

The plight during the COVID pandemic of Khim Ha, a 46-year-old Phnom Penh food cart vendor and member of the Khmer Krom ethnic group -- which is frequently involved in such small businesses -- shows how the pandemic has hit the earnings of the city’s informal workers.

Before the pandemic hit, every day she wheeled her food cart to a busy corner in the Chaktomuk commune, or neighborhood, the capital’s hustling central commercial and political quarter home to banks, companies, and branded fashion stores, to sell fried noodles with vegetables, eggs, and beef, chicken or pork breakfasts.

Over the past 10 months, as Phnom Penh’s businesses and offices have been closed by the coronavirus, her income has been cut by half because the workers she once fed no longer have jobs.

“My sales had been down for months,” she told VOA Khmer, “It’s been dropping – drop and drop.”

Now, a recent outbreak in Phnom Penh and a few of the country’s provinces might be the death knell for her small and struggling business.

Cambodia said November 28 it had identified six new cases of COVID-19 but could not contact-trace the source of the infections. In the last two weeks, the number of cases has grown to 40, and the government has ordered people to stay home as much as possible, leaving shopping malls and local markets largely empty.

This left Khim Ha facing a choice to either stay home and lose all income or risk infection while continuing to sell fried noodles.

“I am also scared deep inside because I can be infected with the virus any time, but I keep protecting myself with masks,” Khim Ha said.

She said the risk has not paid off because few people are venturing out, let alone eating street vendor food. To make things worse, she usually claims a spot for her noodle cart on a section of Preah Sihanouk Boulevard, with its well-known shops and now, a COVID-19 cluster of at least seven cases.

Each day she sets up, Khim Ha joins other street vendors, ride-hailing tuk-tuk drivers and all the other self-employed or informal workers with little option but to continue working through the current outbreak.

There is no clear estimate of the number of informal workers in Cambodia. The International Labor Organization estimates more than 60% of Cambodians contribute to the informal economy. This does not include the workers employed in agriculture, which is about 33% of the country’s overall workforce and largely informal.

These workers have little or none of the social protections workers in the formal sector enjoy. Tourism and garment industry workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic have received small monthly payments as factories and hotels have closed in the last nine months.

The only way informal workers can receive state benefits is to qualify as “IDPoor,” a state- and donor-funded program that recently started cash transfers of $30 to $40 a month to more than 600,000 poor Cambodian households, or close to 2.4 million people. Before the pandemic, the only IDPoor benefit was free health care.

Soeung Tha sells balloons in front of Phnom Penh’s Lanka Temple, Dec. 7, 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
Soeung Tha sells balloons in front of Phnom Penh’s Lanka Temple, Dec. 7, 2020. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

A few steps away from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s city residence near the Independence Monument, balloon vendor Soeung Tha looked bored on Monday, standing near his rusty motorcycle with a few helium-filled balloons attached to it.

On a normal day, the 35-year-old caters to tourists and Cambodians visiting the monument or the parks around it. The Phnom Penh resident earned at least $7.50 a day from their balloon purchases.

Staring at the near-empty grand intersection, usually bustling with traffic, he said he had only few profitable days over the past two weeks.

“In my worst days, I could at least make a sale of up to 30,000 riel [$7.50],” Soeung Tha said. “But this is beyond the worst. Not a single person has bought a single balloon since this morning.”

Soeung Tha began selling balloons in 2014 after he returned from Thailand, where he was an undocumented migrant worker. He said balloon sales had not been bad during the first few months of the pandemic, but the recent outbreak fueled by community transmission was hurting his family’s income. The father of three, he pays for his children’s education and household expenses while helping a brother repay his loans.

“That’s why I cannot stay at home,” Tha said.

An October United Nations Development Program forecast estimated that Cambodia’s post-pandemic poverty rate could rise to 17.6%, putting around 1.34 million people into poverty.

Chan Dara, 36, was a hospitality trainer before funding dried up at the vocational training institute that employed him. The institution closed in April, and Chan Dara dipped into his savings to purchase a tuk-tuk so he could be a registered driver with ride-sharing applications Grab and PassApp.

He earned a steady living with rides from the popular Aeon Mall in Phnom Penh’s affluent Tonle Bassac commune. However, the mall closed on November 28 for a few days after a woman there showed COVID symptoms.

Chan Dara, who was not at the mall that day because his tuk-tuk was broken, learned of the closure through Facebook.

Now the mall is open but there are no customers. Photos posted by Facebook users show the mall is almost deserted. Chan Dara said he will continue to wait outside the mall, hoping to make even $10 a day, or half what he earned before the current outbreak.

“I would feel bored and hungry if I stayed at home – it would be a certain financial crisis at home,” he said.

Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said informal workers and small businesses were in a difficult situation.

“If you look at them in a bigger picture, they cannot stay at home at all as they have to spend all day earning whatever they can,” Vorn Pov said. “They will not have food to eat and go hungry if they stay at home.”

Vorn Pov criticized the government’s social protection package, which he said is doing little to help informal workers and their families. Informal workers are also not recognized by the labor code, and cannot unionize to push for better protections, which is why Vorn Pov’s group is an association and not a workers’ union.

Theng Panhathon, head of the Planning Ministry’s General Department of Planning, which handles the IDPoor program, said the social protections offered by the government reached around 700,000 poor families nationwide.

“It does not mean the government does not care about them [informal workers] but we all know about the government’s budgetary situation,” Theng Panhathon said. “At this point, we need to humbly ask for our people’s understanding.”