Factory workers making goods for the west bear the brunt of the virus outbreak in Southeast Asia | Asia Pacific

It was around mid-May when workers at the Cal-Comp factory in Phetchaburi, central Thailand, learned that a small group of their colleagues had tested positive for Covid-19. It soon became apparent that the virus had spread through production lines. A cluster associated with the electronics factory has since been linked to thousands of infections.

Hwan Htet Paing *, a worker at the factory, said he was not informed of the results of his Covid test, carried out on May 19. Despite this, he was ordered to quarantine himself in a large hall at his workplace. The floor was covered with tarpaulins and lined with rows of mosquito nets for each worker. Everyone got a bucket and a mug, and sheets to put on the floor. Fans have been handed out to help ease the heat – until the large number of people testing positive meant there were none left.

He stayed for 14 days, in the same clothes he was wearing when he was sent to the facility.

Across Southeast Asia, countries that managed to avert the worst of the pandemic last year are facing new waves of Covid-19, fueled by more contagious variants. In several countries in the region, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia, clusters have started at key manufacturing sites. In Vietnam, which virtually wiped out the virus last year, the total number of cases has tripled since early May, reaching nearly 10,000, in part due to outbreaks in factories.

Malaysia was forced to impose a lockdown this month after daily cases surpassed 9,000. Much of the country’s manufacturing sector has been allowed to continue operating at limited capacity throughout the lockdown, despite concerns expressed by activists. On Friday, it emerged that more than 800 workers at glove maker WRP had tested positive for Covid.

“Unfortunately, the whole setup of these production lines and factories is not conducive to preventing Covid-19,” said Andy Hall, a migrant worker rights specialist.

Increased demand for some products during the pandemic put additional pressure on supply chains. Many of these products are destined for Europe: technical equipment and printers for people working at home, medical gloves for health workers, canned tuna for people filling the cupboards.

In Thailand, workers at more than 130 factories have been infected, according to a Ministry of Industry investigation reported by Thai media. This includes Charoen Pokphand Foods, Thailand’s largest agricultural company.

A Bangkok market is cleaned up after a worker tests positive. Photograph: Diego Azubel / EPA

Suthasinee Kaewleklai, Thai coordinator of the Migrant Workers Rights Network advocacy group, said many of the affected factories across the country are made up of workers from Cambodia and Myanmar, who are particularly vulnerable. “They don’t have labor unions or unions like Thai workers. They don’t have representatives to negotiate what employers should do for them.

Conditions at the Cal-Comp factory quarantine facility were so bad that workers at the site protested the power shortages and the lack of food. They said the food and electricity problems inside the facility improved after their protests.

Other factory workers remain isolated at home. Chhuk Sophal *, a Cambodian Cal-Comp worker, spent more than two weeks in his small rented room, relying on donors for food. The factory has left food parcels, he added, but it is not enough. “It’s just canned rice and fish. They give it to us just to eat to survive, ”he said.

Cal-Comp and the Phetchaburi governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Workers said Cal-Comp introduced measures to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, but that, in practice, social distancing was often impossible.

Chhaeut SoPhally, a garment worker in Cambodia who has also seen a recent increase in the number of cases, said that although people manage to stay at a distance in the factory, his colleagues were crowded as they stood. drove to and from work in the backs of trucks. For some, the journey can take hours, he said.

Chhaeut has tested positive following an outbreak among colleagues at a garment factory in Kampong Chhnang, central Cambodia. He was immediately taken to an isolation room to wait for an ambulance, which would take him to a quarantine center. In the meantime, he called his wife, who cried at the news. “I was worried about my children. What if they test positive and are treated in a different location. What if my wife is positive? Who will take care of our children? he said. The next day, authorities placed a rope around his house. His wife and children were asked to stay inside. They relied on the neighbors to leave food outside their door. It is not certain that he will receive his full salary this month.

For many, the economic consequences of the virus are more feared than the disease itself. “This is in part because Cambodia was not largely affected by the virus in terms of health last year, when the economic effects were devastating,” said Patrick Lee, legal adviser to the advocacy group. Central.

The United Nations Development Program estimates that poverty will almost double in the country due to Covid-19, spreading to 17.6% of the population.

Cambodia’s clothing industry was plunged into crisis at the start of the pandemic, when companies abruptly canceled orders. More than 100 factories closed last year and more than 400 others have suspended their jobs, often for months, Lee said. Central’s research suggests that the order suspension peaked in July of last year, but that activity has started to pick up again as Western brands boost their online sales.

The recent outbreak in Cambodia, which began in April and caused severe containment, caused further disruption and again put increased pressure on the poorest. Cambodian law does not require employers to pay full wages during the lockdown, Lee said. According to Central’s research involving workers from 120 factories, very few did.

As cases have increased in many countries in the region, access to vaccines is limited. Cambodia has fully vaccinated nearly 14% of its population, far more than many of its neighbors, thanks to its close relationship with China, which provided much of its supplies.

Thailand only started its vaccination campaign on June 7 and has fully vaccinated less than 2.5% of the population. However, dose shortages are cause for concern. The country relies mainly on Siam Bioscience, a king-owned company that has yet to produce vaccines, to source AstraZeneca vaccines. The company is due to deliver doses to eight other countries in the region, but it was recently confirmed that orders to the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan will be delayed.

Campaigners call on governments to ensure migrant workers have equal access to vaccines, including undocumented migrants who are not currently working. Suthasinee is concerned that there are too many loopholes in the Thai system. Although the Thai government recently allowed migrants to register with the Ministry of Labor regardless of their status, the window to do so was too short, she said.

Many are worried about sanctions if they come forward and do not have the right papers. Similar fears are being felt among migrant workers in Malaysia, where officials have threatened to carry out raids during the lockdown, and which recently announced it would deport thousands of Indonesians.

Chhuk said he used to discuss the possibility of a vaccine with friends. “Prevention [of Covid] is impossible because of overcrowding, ”he said. “If we can get vaccinated, we will be less worried, we will be protected. Whether or not he could have access to a vaccine, he said, was 50:50.

* The names of the workers have been changed at their request

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