Chea Sinon bid farewell to her sister and roommate, Chea Channeath, on Friday as she headed back to her home province of Kampong Cham.
The now-dismissed garment factory worker lost her job at Bowker Garment Factory on Thursday, April 16, for visiting her family over the Khmer New Year holidays earlier this week.
On account of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the government on April 7 announced that the four-day annual holiday would be canceled. The administration even declared an inter-province travel ban the evening of April 9, fearing garment workers would defy the order to continue working and head home.
Chea Sinon, who lives in Kandal province’s Ang Snoul district, left for Kampong Cham the morning of April 9, hours before the travel ban was announced, to visit her family for the weekend. Her supervisor had approved two days of leave.
She intended to come back to Phnom Penh and said her sister, Chea Channeath, called her to come back to work immediately. She even informed her factory supervisor about her predicament.
But, there were no transportation options because of the travel ban, she said.
“This morning I went inside the factory and I was brought to meet the administration and they fired me saying because I didn’t work for six days,” said the 22-year-old Chea Sinon, who had worked at the factory since December 2019.
A document titled “Payroll Letter” confirming her termination was reviewed by VOA Khmer. The document was stamped on April 16 and has her first day of work, last date of work, her photograph and a stamp from the company’s human resources office.
On Friday, the Ministry of Labor issued a three-page document to deal with workers returning to work after visiting the provinces. It asked the factories to send these workers to health centers for checkups, to enforce a quarantine period, ensure safety measures and how much to pay them during the quarantine. It added that failure to comply with all of the ministry’s instructions could lead to termination without benefits.
Last week, the same day the travel ban was announced on April 9, Heng Sour, a Labor Ministry spokesperson, said on Facebook that workers who defied the order to continue working over the Khmer New Year holidays can be fired without compensation.
“People who are off from work during the New Year can be considered as committing a serious mistake. The company can fire them from work without compensation,” he said in the Facebook post.
However, hours earlier on the same day, he struck a softer tone, saying workers would only be quarantined for 14 days potentially without pay.
Ken Loo, general-secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, agreed with Heng Sour’s assertion that workers could be fired if they hadn’t followed the government’s directive and took leave without approval from the factory.
“They can’t go to work immediately since we need to protect the health of workers who still work [on Khmer New Year],” he said, supporting the decision to quarantine workers.
“If they didn’t ask for permission and they went without approval... it is a serious mistake and it means we can fire them immediately,” he said.
According to the Health Ministry, directive workers could be fired only if they violated the quarantine conditions. But some workers said they were fired even before being asked to start the 14-day quarantine period.
Yang Sophorn, president of workers union Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said she was receiving information from workers that they have been fired.
“Factories will take this opportunity to fire workers,” she said, though she didn’t have an estimate for the numbers of workers fired so far.
She added that her union will seek the intervention of the Labor Minister for unfair terminations and discuss how workers could not afford to go into quarantine without pay.
“The question is how can [the government] solve their problems when putting them in quarantine? They need income and have [to pay for] rental rooms,” she said.
Labor Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Another worker at Chea Sinon’s factory, Phat Phuong said she was fired Friday morning, despite asking her superior for permission to go back to her hometown in Battambang for two days last weekend.
Again, she was unable to come back to Phnom Penh because of transportation issues. “The road was blocked and I could not come back,” she said.
After informing the factory that she was given permission to leave and could not return because of the travel ban, the administration asked her to stay away from the factory for 14 days, but have not clarified if they have withdrawn the termination.
Seang Ratha, head of the human resource at Bowker Garment Factory, denied that workers had been fired, calling it a rumor. He only added that the factory had around 100 workers who had left for the holidays and returned recently.
On her way to Kampong Cham, Chea Sinon said she was worried about not having money to feed her two children. Additionally, she used to send around $150 a month to help her mother pay off a hefty debt.
“I am worried that I don’t have money for my children and my mother who are in a difficult time,” she said. “They depend on my money every month.”