For the last five years, Seum Sreyoun has woken up at 5 a.m., rushed to finish her housework and then gotten ready for the 5:30 a.m. truck to her workplace.
The 39-year-old would then brave an hour-long treacherous ride to the garment factory crammed into the back of a flatbed truck with other workers.
However, now she no longer has to wake up at 5 a.m. because her factory, Winning Dragon Leatherwear Cambodia, suspended work last week due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. That pandemic has also infected 117 people in Cambodia, so far.
Seum Sreyoun, a mother of four girls, is concerned about her children’s wellbeing but is particularly worried about a large loan she has to repay.
“My children will stop studying if I don’t have money for them,” she said.
“What I am concerned about the most is paying the debt, but I still hope that I can find a job and pay it off, bit by bit,” said Seum Sreyoun at her home in the province’s Svay Chacheb commune, Borseth district.
Like many Cambodians, Seum Sreyoun took on a debt to pay for household expenses. She borrowed around $2,500 from a financial institution, of which $1,600 was spent on buying a new Honda Dream motorcycle for her husband and the rest was used to run her home.
Those expenses are a heavy burden, especially with her dwindling, uncertain monthly income. She still has 14 months of payments before the loan is repaid.
Initially, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that workers would get 60 percent of their minimum wage, split unequally between the factory and the government at 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively. This meant that workers could only expect a meager $114 per month, with the condition that they attend job training sessions.
The prime minister then changed his tune on Tuesday, announcing that the workers would now receive even less, only $70 a month, which is roughly a third of their current minimum wage. The job training sessions have been discontinued.
“Factories are unable to pay. We can’t force them,” he said. “This is our best ability,” Hun Sen said at a Tuesday press conference.
While the government was quick to consider the constraints faced by private enterprise, it seems to have disregarded the financial obligations – such as Seum Sreyoun’s $130 monthly loan payment – workers have every month.
The out-of-work garment worker said she had received her last salary in March but was expecting to receive the factory's 40 percent contribution at the end of April. It is unclear if this would change given the premier’s announcement on Tuesday.
“If I have no job, I will ask my husband to find a job. I will stay home looking after the children. I am a bit old and it is hard to look for a job,” she said, rocking one of her toddlers to sleep in a hammock.
There is a small ray of hope for the family. Her 19-year-old daughter, Leang Theara, still has a job because her garment factory has not yet suspended work.
“Our living condition is poor and I need my daughter to help earn income,” said Seum Sreyoun.
The same cannot be said of Seum Sreyoun's sister, Seum Nem, who works at the same factory. After ten years of working in the garment sector, Seum Nem now has no income or savings to cover the monthly installments on a $5,000 loan she took to build a home.
“I am also concerned that I cannot pay [the loan]. I don’t know whether I can go back to work or not,” said Seum Nem, who has one child.
Local rights groups Licadho and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut released a report in 2019 highlighting human rights violations linked to the profit-making microfinance industry, especially land tenure insecurity, child labor, and forced migration.
The findings demonstrated that there were some 2.4 million Cambodian borrowers at the start of 2019, holding a total debt of $8 billion.
This meant each borrower held an average of $3,370. This was almost as much as the total median disposable income for a rural Cambodian household and much higher than the country’s 2017 GDP per capita of $1,427.
In 2014 the World Bank found that 4.5 million Cambodians were teetering close to the poverty line. This low-income level, combined with the increased debt burden, has severely impacted rural standards of living, especially in light of current job insecurity.
In the nearby commune of Tuol Sala, Ek Moeun, the commune chief, said many residents in his constituency were reliant on garment factories for work – at least 1,200 villagers of a population of approximately 8,000 were garment workers.
“It will affect them more or less. But they can work at their farms since their families also have farms,” he said, repeating a common rationalization pushed by the government to conceal low job creation in rural provinces.
“They still have some remaining money. There should be no problem. Wait until the government helps to recover the situation,” added the Cambodian People’s Party member.
The work suspensions started when Cambodian garment factories claimed to have no raw materials to feed their production lines, due to China’s production slowdown in January and February.
Now the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has said buyers have canceled or stopped accepting produced goods, leaving thousands of Cambodians suspended or fired from their work.
This, according to Hun Sen, has resulted in around 100 factories ceasing production which accounts for roughly a seventh of the exporting factories. The trade unions reported that around 60,000 workers have been affected.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said having little or no income was placing a big burden on workers, many of whom, he said, are deeply indebted.
“The [partial] payments during the suspension are not enough to even [repay] a loan. What about other spendings? They can’t deal with that,” he said on Monday.
He added thousands of garment workers have not been suspended but have had their contracts terminated, giving them zero hope of returning to work.
Unionists are also concerned these factory closures are linked to the partial revocation of the ‘Everything But Arms’ trade privileges, which will see 40 product categories lose quota and duty-free status to the European Union in August.
“It will be another risk after the virus [concerns] reduce,” said Pav Sina, adding that more workers were at risk of losing their jobs. “Cambodia needs to deal with another risk.”