With Tourism Declines, Tuk-Tuk Drivers Are Down and Out in Phnom Penh

8 min read
A driver sits in his tuk-tuk, awaiting clients at Deumkor market in Phnom Penh on April 23, 2020. (Panha Chorpoan/VOD)
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Poeun Da abandoned his job at a Phnom Penh garment factory to drive a tuk-tuk last year, and the $3,000 investment in his vehicle seemed to pay off. Da said he could earn at least 100,000 riel ($25) a day, and between $500 and $600 a month, ferrying locals and tourists through the capital via mobile ride-hailing apps.

That was the case until mid-March when the global Covid-19 pandemic made its way to Cambodia — with confirmed cases rising from one to more than 100 — and dealt a blow to his livelihood. Now, he earns just $2.50 to $5 a day.

“It’s really hard, bro! To be frank, in one day, [I get] only one ride,” said the husband and father last month. “Today, from morning till night, I had only one ride, and I need to pay to the [ride-hailing] company and some for gas.”

Tuk-tuk drivers like Da are losing their income as tourist arrivals to Cambodia plummet and residents decide to stay home. At the same time, the informal workers are largely excluded from the limited social welfare that formal workers have access to during the economic slowdown. 

Cambodia has recorded 122 cases of Covid-19 since January, with almost all having recovered and left quarantine. The Health Ministry has not reported a new coronavirus case since April 12, and no deaths linked to Covid-19 have been confirmed.

LPG-powered tuk-tuks sit parked in a line, with drivers awaiting customers in Phnom Penh on April 23, 2020. (Panha Chorpoan/VOD)
LPG-powered tuk-tuks sit parked in a line, with drivers awaiting customers in Phnom Penh on April 23, 2020. (Panha Chorpoan/VOD)

But globally, more than 3 million people have contracted the virus and over 210,000 deaths have been counted, according to the World Health Organization, with many nations restricting travel within and through their borders.

Cambodia has ordered a travel ban on people coming from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, the U.S. and Iran. The government has also closed schools, cinemas, museums, nightclubs and gyms, and temporarily banned religious events and other public gatherings.

Though most Phnom Penh stores, coffee shops and restaurants remain open for business, tuk-tuk drivers say people are going out less frequently since restrictions were established in March, and they have almost completely lost tourists, who make up a significant segment of their customers. 

Vorn Pao, president of the labor group Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), said informal workers like taxi and tuk-tuk drivers have faced a sharp fall in income since the novel coronavirus hit Cambodia because of their inconsistent work and looming loans that many take to buy their vehicles. 

If the virus and its economic impacts persisted, Pao said drivers may feel forced to abandon their jobs in the capital and return to their provincial homes. 

“This will become an impact if the Covid-19 [outbreak] lasts in Cambodia,” he said. “If they need to sell their [vehicles] to repay the banks, sales would not be made at a good price in such a situation.”

At his vehicle trade shop in Stung Meanchey commune, Ry Silay said he would still buy tuk-tuks in good condition, but at a price that’s $200 or $300 less than the vehicle’s value before the pandemic. However, Silay admitted that he had not bought any tuk-tuks in the last two months.

“The difference between [the number of] buyers and sellers is big,” he said. “There are five, six or seven [drivers who want to sell their tuk-tuk] a day, but there are almost no [buyers] in a day, maybe one or two, so we cannot sell.”

Hout Ieng Tong, president and CEO of microfinance lender Hattha Kaksekar Limited (HKL), said his company would help clients who work as tuk-tuk drivers, noting that the National Bank had urged microfinance institutions to offer borrowers some relief because of the impacts Covid-19 has had on their jobs. 

“If they are tuk-tuk drivers [who need help], they need to come to meet officials of the institution from which they borrowed money, explain reasons [for their lost income] to them and submit a letter requesting delayed repayment,” Ieng Tong said. “We believe that each institution will truly follow the direction of the National Bank, and if they do not follow it, they are wrong.” 

But he also suggested drivers seek new sources of income, in an industry also affected by the pandemic. “Finding a construction job would be better,” he said.

No Tourists to Transport

As Cambodia’s economy was beginning to feel the impacts of the global recession, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in early March that tourism would be one of the sectors most impacted by the pandemic.

Civil Aviation Secretariat spokesman Sinn Chanserey Vutha told reporters last month that international visitors decreased​ by 20 percent in January and 50 percent in February, and then by more than 70 percent in March and 90 percent in April.

Four months of drops in tourists have had a harsh effect on drivers’ income, they say. 

A plane lands at Phnom Penh International Airport on March 23, 2020. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)
A plane lands at Phnom Penh International Airport on March 23, 2020. (Chorn Chanren/VOD)

Parked outside the Phnom Penh International Airport, Mao Yorn, a 40-year-old driver, said he generally could earn $25 a day by chauffeuring tourists and others using the litany of available ride-hailing apps. The income was sufficient to repay $300 per month on his $5,000 loan from Cambodia Post Bank, Yorn said.

But when the number of coronavirus cases increased in Cambodia, the number of customers approaching him in person or on apps dwindled. 

“Today, as a whole from morning till night, I have not provided one service, and tomorrow, I’m not sure whether one will come or not,” he said. “Probably finding a construction job is better.”

In an April report, the World Bank projected that the poverty rate among Cambodia’s hospitality workers — including transportation, tourism and restaurant staff — could jump to more than 20 percent if the sector’s average income is cut in half for two quarters, warning that impacts on informal workers would be most severe. In March, industry experts said the tourism sector would be feeling impacts of the pandemic for at least two quarters, if not longer.

‘How Could the State Have This Much Money?’

Alongside a range of economic initiatives to help the struggling tourism sector, Hun Sen announced in March that unemployed tourism industry workers who lost their jobs could qualify for job skills training. However, the premier noted in April that informal economy workers — including drivers — would not have access to funds granted to suspended garment workers.

“For those who have the ID poor card, the state will intervene. But as you asked me, motorbike-taxi drivers have asked if there is any solution,” Hun Sen said on April 7. “[They must] sell their motorbikes first for spending and buy rice to eat, because if they all come and ask for a solution, [we are going to] die. How could the state have this much money?”  

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks about Covid-19 at a press conference at the Peace Palace, in this photograph posted to his Facebook page on April 7, 2020.
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks about Covid-19 at a press conference at the Peace Palace, in this photograph posted to his Facebook page on April 7, 2020.

For the tens of thousands of tuk-tuk drivers nationwide, the economic situation is similarly precarious.

IDEA president Pao said based on research by his association, there are about 50,000 tuk-tuks operating with mobile ride-hailing apps, and about 10,000 Cambodia-made tuk-tuks on the road. 

Luy Lary, marketing manager of the Cambodia-based ride-hailing company PassApp, acknowledged the strain felt by the company’s drivers and said management was considering how to help workers.

“We know that due to Covid-19, transportation has been falling, which means fewer customers. We also raised this matter to top management and we have conducted some meetings,” Lary said, adding that the company would share details soon.

Last year, drivers protested PassApp’s decision to reduce rates and raise the company’s commission from 13 percent of ride fares to 15 percent, the Phnom Penh Post reported. 

For Da, the driver, the payment deadlines for his $2,000 loan from HKL are becoming more worrisome. Rather than wait for any tenuous support from ride-hailing companies or the government, Da said he’s considering selling his tuk-tuk and looking for work at a construction site, or back at a garment factory.

The latter sector has seen more than 130 factories request production suspensions, affecting about 100,000 workers’ employment in recent months.

“If the situation is still like this, we do not know what to do,” Da said. “If we cannot make enough money, we can only sell our tuk-tuks to cover daily expenses and bank loans. If we do not make sales, we can’t repay loans.”

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

Note: This report was produced with support from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation under the financial support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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