Cambodian Workers Caught Up in Thai Covid-19 Surge

5 min read
Authorities at the O’Smach International Border Checkpoint check temperatures of Cambodian workers returning from Thailand, in a photograph posted to the Immigration Department’s Facebook page on March 23, 2020.

At a canned fish factory in Thailand’s Samut Prakan province, Nuon Narin says most of about 600 Cambodian workers tested positive for Covid-19.

Narin and his wife also tested positive, and were sent to a Thai hospital. His wife was seriously ill for about nine days, including losing consciousness, he said.

The 48-year-old said he had now returned to work at the factory, but continues to live in fear over his health and his 44-year-old wife, who has yet to go back.

“We still feel afraid of reinfection. Because of our living, no matter how it is, we have to persist in working,” Narin said. The company promised to pay about $130 a month only to those who returned to work, lower than the $450 to $500 he could normally make with overtime, he said.

Some Cambodian workers, like Narin, are caught in a wave of Covid-19 at their workplaces in Thailand and under pressure to maintain their livelihoods, while many others have fled back to Cambodia to escape the disease and the risk of difficulties in getting treatment or poor deals from employers.

Thailand is currently seeing thousands of new Covid-19 cases a day as the outbreak has spread across more than 130 factories. According to Reuters, factories and construction camps are among the biggest sources of infections, alongside prisons. The country has seen more than 218,000 total cases and 1,600 deaths.

“We have a lot of Cambodian brothers and sisters at my factory,” Narin said. “Here, most Khmer were infected when they were requested for testing.”

Some fled to Cambodia before testing, and some after they got their results, he said.

Phan Sophal, a construction worker, said he returned to his hometown in Banteay Meanchey province last month from a worksite in Thailand’s Rayong province.

There, he lived in close quarters with other workers in dormitories, and, fearing Covid-19, he came back on a 15-seat van squeezed in with other Cambodians, he said.

“Covid, when it explodes, there are difficulties. Not only Khmers but Thais also, we struggle the same,” Sophal said. But migrants could end up especially vulnerable. “There, as I had left my home behind, I would face many difficulties. That is why I returned home.”

Sophal said he was quarantined for a month, as he had had contact with some returnees who tested positive.

Chea Darin, 41, also returned from Thailand, where he was renovating hotel rooms in Bangkok.

He saw news reports about Covid-19 spreading among workers, and fled with four relatives without telling his boss, who would not have been happy, Darin said.

“In a foreign country, it is difficult. [We] heard that [some] were not taken care of well, so [we] decided to return,” Darin said.

The group of five relatives spent 17 days at a quarantine center at the border. Then, two days after getting home, they were locked down in their house and made to take more tests. Two — his wife and her brother — tested positive for Covid-19, Darin said.

He said financial worries were mounting, and he hoped to go to Phnom Penh to make money and try to pay his debt, in order to stave off microfinance firm LOLC from taking the family’s land.

Loeng Sophon, a Thailand-based project officer at labor rights group Central, said the country’s Covid-19 surge since last month had hit areas with large numbers of Cambodian workers, such as the provinces of Samut Prakan, Samut Sakhon, Rayong, and Pathum Thani.

Some factories have temporarily closed without notice of a possible reopening date, he said.

Cambodian workers had since been returning through Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet and O’Beichoan and Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach borders, he said.

Cambodian migrants without proper documents, those with expired work permits or passports, and workers paid daily in the construction sector were especially at risk. They could face trouble with the law while in quarantine or getting treatment, and some employers may not take responsibility for them, he said.

Some employers are not open to authorities about workers and outbreaks, he said. “They avoid all the problems. So that is why I think it’s complicated.”

For those who had lost their jobs at shuttered factories, Thai authorities are asking workers not to move around the country and workplaces amid the outbreak.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Koy Koung said there were an estimated 1 million Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Central estimated there could be as many as 1.8 million including illegal workers.

Koung said the embassy in Thailand was paying attention to the situations of Cambodians there, and working with local authorities and Thai employers to help those in need, including providing food.

He asked that people avoid moving around amid the outbreak. “In order to prevent the spread, we don’t encourage them to travel from one place to another, especially crossing the border,” he said.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said security forces had stepped up to prevent illegal crossings — potentially to avoid quarantine — since the new wave of Covid-19.

“Whether it increases or decreases, it does not matter to us. But in this situation, we have strengthened our forces … especially after Thailand closed its borders and the outbreaks have reemerged. We have deployed more forces to more targeted checkpoints,” Kim Khoeun said.

On Friday, the Cambodian Health Ministry announced it had found a further seven cases of the new Delta strain of Covid-19 among workers returning from Thailand. The ministry announced the first three cases of the variant, first found in India, on June 4. It is considered to be more transmissible than the U.K. variant previously seen in the “February 20” outbreak.

In the week to Sunday, health authorities reported 342 imported Covid-19 cases out of 4,248 total new cases, or about 8 percent. The figure was about 5 percent in the first week of June.

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