Khem Sovannary, 53, works at a Korean owned massage and spa salon for tourists in the Cambodian city Siem Reap, the gateway to the famous Angkor Wat temples.
Together with 80 colleagues she was suspended from work in late February when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a massive decline in the number of tourists arriving in the Southeast Asian nation.
“My employer has signed an agreement with us and promised that she will reopen the business as soon as the coronavirus pandemic is over, and tourists fly back into Siem Reap,” Sovannary told LiCAS.news by phone.
But the masseur hasn’t received any financial support from her employer since the business was closed. “The owner told us that she can’t afford to give us any money,” she said.
Sovanary also said that she doesn’t receive any financial support from Cambodia’s government which promised to help those who had lost employment in the country’s hospitality and tourism industry due to COVID-19 induced shutdowns.
“We followed all the instructions to apply for an allowance, such as providing the suspension letter from our employer, our thumb prints, our contact details and a copy of our ID-card,” she said. “But we didn’t hear anything.”
On April 7 Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the government would offer a monthly allowance of US$40 to affected employees in the hospitality and tourism industry. Hun Sen also said that employers can voluntarily add more money to that allowance. This is a similar initiative to what tens of thousands of Cambodian garment workers receive if they lost their job due to COVID-19. Garment workers are to receive a monthly US$40 from the government plus an additional US$30 from their employer.
But while garment workers are properly registered and are likely to receive their allowance, that same can’t be said for all those working in sectors where there’s no minimum wage and where there are not the same unionized regulations as found in Cambodia’s clothing and shoe factories.
Many Cambodians who depend on tourism — those working in hotels, spas and restaurants — for their livelihoods have lost their income.
Son Dara, 27, works at the Fortuna Casino & Hotel in Sihanoukville. The restaurant worker said that the South Korean owned establishment was ordered shut on April 1 and that he has no idea when he will be back at work. He has gotten some financial support from his employer, but nothing yet from the government.
“I received a US$50 allowance in mid-April, and I hope to receive the same amount in mid-May, but I’m not sure how long the casino will continue to pay this,” he said.
The amount of money is small compared with the salary Dara would normally make. He told LiCAS.news that during normal times he earns between US$350 and US$400 per month. On top of that he receives three meals per day and free accommodation. “Now I have to pay my own accommodation, my own food and everything else. And I only get a fraction of my usual salary,” he said.
Dara said that he expects to receive the monthly US$40 from the government, as the money is supposed to go to casino workers as well. But so far, he hasn’t heard anything about how and when he will receive the money.
To deal with the financial shortage, Dara recently started a job as a construction worker. “I get paid US$10 per day but working in construction is a lot harder than working in a casino, and I don’t get any other benefits, such as a free meal or a day off,” he said.
According to the Ministry of Labor, Cambodia has a total labor force of 10 million people of which 2.2 million work in the informal economy. The Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (CATA) said that so far, the COVID-19 crisis has affected 630,000 people working in tourism with 30,000 of them becoming unemployed.
But that last number is up for debate. Labor rights organizations and labor unions said that 40 to 50 percent off all the workers have been laid off or have been suspended from work. In order to maintain their employment, a majority of hotel and service workers have seen their wages cut by 30 to 40 percent, LiCAS.news was told by labor rights group CENTRAL.
Many workers are angry and disappointed.
Chhim Sithor, the labor union president of NagaWorld — the biggest casino in Cambodia and one of the wealthiest companies in the country — said that her employer has made profits for decades. “But in times of crisis they barely look at the workers who have turned them into billionaires,” she said.
CENTRAL program manager Khun Tharo said that the situation is most bad for those who lost their jobs and who aren’t covered by any allowance from the government.
“For example, the cleaning workers who are employed by subcontractors at Siem Reap International Airport. They have all been suspended because of a reduction in the number of tourists,” Tharo said.
“Although they have lost their employment as a result of COVID-19, none of them are receiving the monthly allowances from the government.
“Similarly, none of the workers in cinemas, clubs, karaoke bars, gyms, beer gardens, massages and spas that were closed by the government, or that were forced to close due to declining tourism, are receiving these monthly allowances.”
Tharo noted that this leaves many young women, especially those who are in debt and who work in the entertainment sector, very vulnerable.
Heng Sour, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Labor, told LiCAS.news in late April that the government was doing all it can to help unemployed people find new opportunities. “But because of the global crisis, it will be a struggle for those who lose their jobs,” he said.
Back in Siem Reap the masseur Sovannary does her best to deal with her situation. While she normally earnt between US$200 and US$230 per month, including tips, she’s now earning nothing.
“Luckily my daughter has a job at a microfinance institute. She now helps me with paying my debts, such as the loan I took five years ago to build a new house,” Sovannary said.
The masseur also fell back in a centuries-old Cambodian tradition — agriculture.
“At home I now grow some vegetables. Some of them I use to feed my family, others I try to sell. But it’s only small money, it’s not enough to survive on,” she said.