(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should urgently address the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which are disproportionately harming Cambodia’s low-income population, Human Rights Watch said today. The recent severe closures have particularly affected the impoverished or unemployed.
On May 11, 2021, the government introduced a “emergency social assistance programâTo provide one-time cash transfers to low-income households, people affected by Covid-19 lockdowns, and families whose members have died or been infected with the coronavirus. The first cash transfers were scheduled for early June. While urgent social assistance is needed, the program should be expanded to protect the rights to an adequate standard of living, health and social security. The identification of at-risk households and the provision of cash transfers must be transparent and closely coordinated with the United Nations country team in Cambodia and development partners, Human Rights Watch said.
âMillions of Cambodians are hungry and fear losing their homes during the pandemic because there is no government social protection system,â said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. âOne-off and one-time cash transfers will not meet basic needs. The Cambodian government should provide timely social protection to all who need it as part of a social protection system that protects rights and contributes to equitable recovery.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in the clothing, entertainment, and tourism sectors have been made redundant or suspended. Few of them have sufficient savings or have received adequate government grants to support them.
In late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed five low-wage workers in the entertainment industry in Phnom Penh whose work was suspended on March 1 and who have received 40 percent of their wages from their employers since then. From April, all were locked up for up to 35 days in one of Phnom Penh’s “red zones”, areas with a total of at least 300,000 people considered to be at high risk of transmission of Covid-19. Residents were prohibited from leaving their homes, even to buy food.
Government food aid in red zones was haphazard and selective, and relief packages were inadequate and insufficient to deal with the food emergency, as reported media outlets and Human Rights Watch and others non-governmental organizations. Government aid consisted of 25 kilograms of rice, six bottles of soy sauce and fish, and a carton of dried noodles per household, regardless of household size.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the packages were not sufficient for their often large households and that no one had received more than one package. One family had not received any food although it was registered with the local village chief. None of those interviewed had received any other support from the government, “I had to eat what I had in the house,” said a 29-year-old mother of two. âIt was only after 25 days that I received a one-time food donation from the government. “
Respondents said they faced lack of access to food and other essentials by skipping or rationing meals. âLeftovers from lunch are eaten in the evening,â said Bin Sreynich, a 28-year-old mother and caretaker of her sick mother and grandmother. âWe cannot afford to waste food. Samol Ratanak, 29, who lives alone in a rented room, finished his remaining food after three days of confinement and had to rely on his neighbors for help. All those interviewed said they had relied on help from relatives, neighbors or other networks.
âI’m mostly afraid of being trapped in debt,â Ratanak said, referring to the micro-loan he hasn’t been able to repay since his suspension from work in March. Others echoed this fear, saying they had called for the suspension of their loan repayments. Their requests were turned down and lenders threatened to blacklist them if they didn’t repay, effectively barring them from taking out future loans, although many low-income people depend on these loans for their survival.
Seng Naroeun, a 37-year-old mother of two, said she suffered from severe anxiety because she feared the mortgage company would foreclose on her house if she did not pay off her debt. She also did not have enough money to feed her family. âI lie to my children that there is no food to buy,â she said. “But in fact, it’s because we don’t have the money to buy food.”
Monika Vann, 29, mother of two and breadwinner, said she was worried about her financial situation and feared that she would soon be unable to pay rent: âWithout housing we could become homeless.
On May 20, authorities removed the red zone designation, although food and economic insecurity remains.
In March 2021, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) valued poverty has almost doubled in Cambodia due to the Covid-19 pandemic, reaching 17.6% of the population. A UN study in April âShowed that over the past six months, households have increasingly adopted coping strategies to access food, including reducing their food consumption, relying on cheaper options and borrowingâ .
the world Bank found that people who escaped poverty before the pandemic did so by only a narrow margin, with around 4.5 million people remaining close to poverty and likely to fall back into poverty when exposed to economic shocks.
In response to the Covid-19 economic crisis, the government has planned for April 2020 lump sum partial wage subsidies garment and tourism workers on leave. The labor rights group the Center for Labor and Human Rights Alliance (CENTRAL) reported that the implementation was flawed, with support not received or received late.
In June, the government began monthly cash transfers through its “Poor Household Identification Program (IDPoor). “The Asian Development Bank reported that in October, the government had provided cash transfers to more than 660,000 households, encompassing more than 2.6 million people. The World Bank highlighted that while cash transfers have mitigated the impact of the pandemic on people experiencing poverty, they do not fully compensate for the loss of well-being.
Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Cambodia adhered in 1992, the government has the obligation to guarantee the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living, so that everyone enjoy the rights necessary to live in dignity, including the rights to adequate food and nutrition, to health and well-being, to water and sanitation, and to housing. Countries with limited resources still have an obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living.
The Cambodian government has an international legal obligation to establish by law a system of social protection, defining people as rights holders and guaranteeing them access. In his General comment n Â° 19, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has stated that the right to social security requires countries to ensure that benefits are adequate in terms of amount and duration, and that they respect human rights principles.
âForeign governments, the UN and international financial institutions providing financial assistance and Covid-19 emergency funds to the Cambodian government should work with the authorities to ensure that social protection is a top priority,â Adams said. âDonors should provide resources and technical assistance so that measures to ensure an adequate standard of living are independently monitored and reach all Cambodians. “