Factory Workers Protest for Vaccines So They Can Return to Work

3 min read
Workers at the Y&W Garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district on March 3, 2021. (Tran Techseng/VOD)

Factory workers in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district gathered outside their village chiefs’ homes on Friday, petitioning to receive the documentation needed for a Covid-19 vaccine so they can be allowed back to work.

Hun Malai, one of the protesting workers, said she needed the document before she could get a vaccine or a Covid-19 test — one of which was required before her factory would let her return and start earning money again.

“We just want the document filled with some background … to get wages to pay rents, utilities,” Malai said. There had been no rent discounts during the lockdown and suspension of work, she said.

“At first, workers didn’t want to get vaccinated, but [it changed] after the factory said [there’s no] wages or resuming work unless there is the document for the vaccine or sample test.”

Malai is in Kakab I commune’s Ta Nguon II village, currently designated as an orange zone. Phnom Penh had three weeks of lockdown before restrictions were relaxed across much of the capital on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraging people to get back to work. But many have complained of being out of work or out of food — with some protests emerging in the most restricted red zones, during which demonstrators demanded food aid.

Factories, unions and the Labor Ministry have suggested a range of measures to maintain Covid-19 safety while reopening. They have proposed two-week shifts with only half the labor force working at a time, possible random testing for 10 percent of workers every month, and that the first shift of returning workers either be vaccinated or have received a certified Covid-19 test.

Kakab I commune chief Ouk Chamroun said protests had hit two villages in his commune on Friday.

“They want to get the documents to get vaccines because they are under pressure from the factories around here that if they do not have the vaccine letter, they will not be allowed to go work and will not get their wages, so they are in a struggle to get it,” Chamroun said.

Authorities were working to distribute the documents quickly, but they needed to maintain control, he said.

“Now in our commune we have this measure … we tightened it up so that only the village chief can distribute it, since the village chief cannot commit [graft] as they are afraid of damaging their name,” Chamroun said. “If they give [the documents] to security guards to distribute, there will be no responsibility and they will take money.”

Some workers were already making photocopies of documents to sell to others, he said.

“If the village chief can’t control it well, it will end up like this — each document for 5,000 or 10,000 [riel] — how much for 100 papers?”

The protesters risked increasing Covid-19 transmission, and force would be used to disperse them if necessary, he said. About 20,000 people in his commune had so far been vaccinated, he added.

Malai, the worker, said that during the morning, authorities had promised they would bring the documents to their houses by 3 p.m. if they went home. But she said in the afternoon that she still had nothing.

Her factory in Pur Senchey had 1,700 workers, of which about 500 had managed to get a vaccine, she said. Some had returned to work but there was still more room at the factory, she said.

At first, she did not believe the rumors that the vaccination documents were for sale, but more and more people told her about them, and she said she could understand the appeal amid the desperation to get paid.

On Friday morning, the village chief had warned the protesters that he would remember their faces if they stuck around and would not give them the desired documents.

“They use the excuse that workers are not socially distancing and are crowding,” she said.

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