Ma Phearavy, her husband and oldest son found themselves unemployed in March. The novel coronavirus pandemic had wreaked havoc on the global economy, and, unsurprisingly, the Chinese investment-powered port city of Sihanoukville was not spared.
At a construction site, the Chinese-owned company informed all workers they were being terminated with immediate effect because there was a lack of material to continue their work. The boomtown was seeing a quick exodus of Chinese workers, businesses, and investment.
“We all lost our jobs and we had to come back to our hometown,” said Phearavy, who hails from Pursat province’s Phnom Kravanh district.
The 41-year-old woman worked alongside her husband, Boeun Bol, and 18-year-old son, Boeun Sophea, who dropped out of school to help his parents earn money.
Ma Phearavy and her family earn between $9 and $12 a day, making less than $900 a month. The mother of four used this income to pay for family expenses, but more importantly the $175 monthly payment she owes Hattha Kaksekar, a major microfinance institution, for a $4,500 loan.
On May 16, the next payment is due. “I might borrow money [from a private lender],” she told VOA Khmer.
The Boeun family is experiencing an array of socio-economic challenges faced by many Cambodian families. These challenges are even more apparent in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which brought sections of the economy to a grinding halt.
Migrant workers, both overseas and locally, have been forced to return to their hometowns after losing their jobs, often finding little or no economic opportunities at home. Interior Minister Sar Kheng said, in late April, around 90,000 migrant workers had returned from overseas, many could slide back into poverty due to the current economic environment.
Like the Boeun family, there are more than 2 million microfinance borrowers, totaling more than $10 billion in loans, according to human rights NGO Licadho. Many families were already struggling to repay their loans before the pandemic, a problem made worse in recent months, according to people VOA Khmer has spoken to since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A report by Licadho last year showed that over-indebtedness was causing families to pull their children out of school to work and earn money for the family, much like Boeun Sophea.
A 2017 OECD report on Cambodia’s social protection systems showed that the country’s economic gains were fragile and many Cambodians had escaped extreme poverty but were still on the brink and highly vulnerable to economic shocks.
This was accentuated by a 2019 UNDP report on multidimensional poverty which showed that income poverty was down to 13.5 percent, but if education, health, and living standards were factored in the headcount jumped to 35 percent.
While one economic shock had destabilized the Boeun family, they would soon face more.
After spending two months in Pursat with no work, Ma Phearavy and Boeun Bol decided to move to Phnom Penh to look for work. Ma Phearavy’s sister, Ma Chakriya, had agreed to host them and help the couple look for a job.
Boeun Sophea and his sister, Boeun Sophany, were sent to Phnom Penh in a shared taxi, but the parents decided to ride their motorcycle to the city. On the evening of May 6, Ma Phearavy and Boeun Bol met with an accident in Kandal’s Ang Snuol district.
They were injured, placed in an ambulance, and sent to a local clinic in the district. After a few hours of treatment at the privately-owned Sothearith Clinic, they were handed a bill of $710.
According to a copy of the invoice shared by the couple on Facebook, Ma Phearavy’s treatment had cost $235 and $475 for her husband. She had bruises and scrapes on her legs, and her husband had broken his right wrist and had bruises on his back. The clinic had cleaned their wounds and bandaged them.
Ma Phearavy was surprised to see this amount and quickly realized she would be unable to pay the hefty bill, especially given the family’s economic situation.
“I told my children that it was a lot. If it was just $150 or $200, it would have been fine,” she said.
After a lot of haggling, the clinic agreed to drop the bill to $450. The couple had to borrow $125 from Ma Phearavy’s brother and $200 from her sister, Ma Chakriya, who had to sell a bracelet to help them.
The issue did catch the attention of the Ministry of Health, which issued a warning letter and fined the clinic $1,250 for not displaying its prices to patients. Or Vandine, a secretary of state at the ministry, visited the couple in Phnom Penh and gave them $450 and organized free treatment for them at a local hospital. Boeun Bol needs surgery in his wrist.
Sros Sopheaktra, the owner of Sothearith Clinic, said the $700 bill was an estimate in case the two needed to be transferred to another hospital, and that they were going to be charged only $450. He was not happy they had taken the issue to social media.
“If they said they lacked [money] on that day, we would have helped reduce the cost, but they didn’t say it. They agreed on $450,” he said.
A U.S. National Institute of Health research paper, released in October 2019, showed that a majority of Cambodia’s poor could not afford private healthcare services by relying on out-of-pocket expenses, subjecting them to “unnecessary and expensive care” that further pushed them into poverty.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said it was common for health clinics and private facilities to charge excessive rates. He added that the Ministry of Health needed to stop this practice at once, rather than use the current case-by-case approach.
“The big issue is that the prices charged by the private hospitals are unclear so the charges are always higher especially for an emergency case and that makes it hard for people to pay,” he said.
Hang Vitou, a political commentator and founder of the Young Analysts Group, said Ma Phearavy's experience was likely shared by many other workers in the country, who were facing uncertainty and instability in their households.
“I believe that perhaps other workers also face the same or similar crisis,” he said.
At Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, Ma Chakriya sits in her rented room upset that her suggestion, for Ma Phearavy and Boeun Bol to come to Phnom Penh, resulted in the accident.
“I cannot sleep and eat well because I was the one who called them here to find jobs and they got into a traffic accident,” said the mother of two.
The $200 Ma Chakriya gave her sister was a costly expense. The garment worker was working for half the hours she did previously, severely affecting her income. She was earning at best $100 a month.
Ma Chakriya, though struggling to make ends meet, has not been terminated or suspended from work, like many of her peers in the garment sector. Close to 200 factories have closed down or suspended their operations due to a drop in international orders, affecting more than 150,000 workers.
Sitting at Preah Kossamak hospital in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district, Ma Phearavy is tending to her husband, who is still receiving treatment for his injuries.
The mother of four is afraid for her family’s future, and questioning whether her decision to move set in motion the chain reaction of hardships they have faced in the last two months.
“But, if I did not migrate for work, my children would have had nothing to eat,” she said.