Cambodia's coronavirus curbs leave karaoke workers in limbo

by Matt Blomberg | @BlombergMD | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 27 March 2020 13:34 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A pair of microphones for karaoke is pictured at the home of Mikio Watanabe at Yamakiya district in Kawamata town, Fukushima prefecture June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Issei Kato

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As Cambodia's karaoke workers lose their jobs, it is likely that many will turn to sex work

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By Matt Blomberg

PHNOM PENH, March 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Cambodian women are heading home to the countryside after karaoke clubs and beer gardens were banned to curb the spread of coronavirus with the loss of about 80,000 jobs, labour rights groups have said.

Most were employed informally and have little prospect of finding work in their villages, said Ou Tepphallin, head of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers' Federation union.

"Most have no idea what they will do next. Some are already taking new loans to cover their daily living costs," she said.

"There is nothing in these villages - that's why they left in the first place."

Across Cambodia, schools, businesses and government offices have closed over the past week, but campaigners fear workers from the informal sector will be hit hardest by a shrinking job market.

About one in seven Cambodians have microfinance loans, according to a report from human rights groups Licadho and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has spoken to about 20 entertainment workers since the shutdown was announced last week, and almost all said debt collectors were their biggest worry.

"They are concerned that the bank or microfinance firm will take their land," Tepphallin said.

Her union has called for a freeze on repayments until the situation stabilises. But government spokesman Ek Tha said there was currently no plan in place to offer assistance.

"We cannot solve all the related social issues overnight... we need to address what is the most crucial issue first," he said.

Cambodia's karaoke clubs have a reputation for being seedy, with clients paying for food, drink, songs and women to accompany them in private rooms.

For people who come from the countryside to make money in Phnom Penh, they offer a less gruelling alternative to factory work - but earning a decent salary can have its own risks.

"The nature of the sector is that workers get most of their income from tips and extra services with clients," said Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.

In the absence of a government bailout, it is likely that some of the unemployed entertainment workers could turn to sex work, where they have no legal protection, he said.

"I can not see any alternatives for them. Hotels, restaurants, cafes - they're all shut down, so where can they go?"

While most of the newly unemployed entertainment workers have headed home, some have crammed into shared rooms in Phnom Penh in the hope of finding work.

"I need to find money before Khmer New Year," said Srey Sokhoeun, who moved into a single room with four colleagues after the karaoke club she worked and lived in shut down.

Like many of her peers, she is expected to return home flush with cash for the traditional three-day holiday in mid-April.

"If I don't have money as expected, I don't think I can go home," she said. "I don't know what I will do." (Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD, Additional reporting by Mech Dara, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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