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Unions Worry About Health Concerns, Potential Conflicts During Khmer New Year

Garment workers wear masks while commuting from work during the COVID-19 pandemic in Phnom Penh, on March 10, 2021. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)
Garment workers wear masks while commuting from work during the COVID-19 pandemic in Phnom Penh, on March 10, 2021. (Hean Socheata/VOA Khmer)

Union leaders are concerned about the government’s decision to allow employers and employees to decide whether to take the Khmer New Year holidays in April. This could cause friction on the factory floor and also put workers at risk of contracting the disease if they choose to travel.

The Cambodian government issued a directive on March 21 allowing for workplaces to take the Khmer New Year holidays from April 14 to 16, or for employers and employees to utilize the holidays at a later date, such as during the Pchum Ben holidays in October.

Last year, the government canceled the holidays and enforced a soft travel ban on people leaving Phnom Penh for the provinces. The Khmer New Year break was taken in August.

Cambodia is currently facing its worst community transmission incident with more than 1,000 cases have been reported since February 20 and five deaths.

Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said it's likely employers and employees could disagree on when to take the holidays, and it would have been preferable for the government to decide.

“During this COVID-19 crisis, I think that if we don't determine it decisively there's a risk of dispute,” Pav Sina said. “I think that despite holding talks with the employers, the garment workers are bound to take leave [for Khmer New Year].”

He said factory owners would prefer workers to not travel for the annual holiday due to the high chance of employees getting infected when returning to the factory.

“If they see any workers are infected, their factory will face suspension. Thus, this would impact the production chain and cause losses for them,” Pav Sina added.

Cambodia has shut down theaters, museums, performance venues, internet cafes, gymnasiums to curb the spread of the virus. The government has asked 90 percent of its employees to work from home and asked private firms to do the same.

Ath Thun, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said workers who traveled for the holidays risked getting infected with COVID-19, and that the government should take firm steps to ensure their safety.

“There will be risks if they travel in taxis with a lot of passengers or join any gatherings with no intention for hygiene, such as wearing masks, washing their hands, or maintaining social distancing,” he said.

Ken Loo, general-secretary at the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said it was up to each factory and their workers to decide on whether to take the holiday next month.

“It depends on each enterprise. We don't know if the workers want to work or not,” he said.

“Are they willing to work? We can't force them. If they want to take leave, we must let them do so.”