When the Covid 19 pandemic struck, Eng Kimchroy, 29, was living with her younger sister in a rental studio apartment – a 10-minute drive from the main airport in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
“It was very quiet,” she recalls.
Today the chaos of cars and honking motorcycles has returned outside Kimchroy’s bedroom window. It’s dawn. She puts her black, square glasses on, ties her fine hair back in a ponytail, and puts on her surgical face mask. She hops onto her standard Khmer motorcycle and fires up the engine. A trail of dust and smoke drifts in her wake as she joins the fray of motorbike traffic choking the busy streets.
Nearing the Berry Apparel garment factory, the throng of people walking willy-nilly in the middle of the street is hard to get through. At least a dozen garment factories are located within a 1km radius. Kimchroy works in one of them. At every corner, food stands abound and long lines of people ebb and flow to buy breakfast. A sharp contrast, indeed, with last year.
“We couldn’t work, hang out with others, let alone visit my family.” Her voice falters: “I missed them so much.”
Lockdown measures in Phnom Penh had forced garment workers to quarantine at home for five months from April 2021 to August 2021. They were unable to cross over to certain zones of the city, notably where Kimchroy’s family lives. The lack of social interaction, however, was not the most haunting factor for Kimchroy.
“I was terrified I’d catch COVID… and lose my job!” she exclaims. “It obsessed me day and night.”
Kimchroy is among millions of workers across the globe who have gone through the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty the COVID 19 pandemic brought in their lives. The International Labour Organization (ILO), together with its constituents and partners, has implemented a number of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and income support initiatives to support garment sector workers and employers in seven countries across Asia and Africa through a Germany supported the project.
The OSH component of the project was implemented by the ILO’s Vision Zero Fund programme in collaboration with ILO Better Work programme in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Laos, Madagascar, and Vietnam. It included large-scale awareness campaigns; training; PPE distribution to vulnerable workers and service providers; and technical support for workplace level risk assessment and mitigation measures with the objective of creating a safe working environment for workers and employers and supporting business continuity.
In Cambodia, the team realised that in order to be most effective, their campaign needed a strategy to instil motivation, confidence, and positivity among workers. As a result, The Better Factories Cambodia team developed a human-centric theme called Su Su, which means “do not give up.” The campaign’s concept and outreach strategy was developed based on first-hand data on the metal health support needs and social-media usage pattern among garment factory workers. The campaign introduced various engaging contents including live sessions, short videos/GIFs and stories of workers.
When the factory asked Kimchroy to join the Su Su campaign, she did not think twice. The movement mostly required her to spread safety information, as well as motivational messages.
“Before I joined the campaign, I was depressed, stressed, and anxious,” she recalls. I couldn’t think clearly. Always stressed, not happy. It was a very difficult time. But after joining the campaign, I started to feel relieved.”
Kimchroy gets off her motorbike and rolls it along, joining a wave of people – mostly women– all walking in the same direction. The path suddenly turns into a funnel – everyone trying to cram into the same factory, like a back to school scrum on campus.
Kimchroy finally reaches the sewing unit she supervises. She adds her name in a spreadsheet with a smile: arrival time – 7:00 a.m. For five straight months in 2021, that list remained empty.
“I told my co-workers they shouldn’t worry too much. What’s important is for us to protect ourselves by wearing masks, using sanitizer and washing hands regularly,” she says.
Four columns of sewing machines are humming in the background. As head of the sewing unit, Kimchroy needs to have close contact with every single garment worker. She also has no option but to touch the garments, to check the quality of the work. With a natural bent for leadership, Kimchroy quickly became a beacon of calm and hope for her colleagues.
“My friends started to feel encouraged, and they put in practice preventive measures more willingly. They felt happier and more motivated,” she says.
The Susu Campaign has reached over 2 million people, 2.5 million engagements via Facebook alone and 70% of those who saw the campaign feel they are part of the Garment Factory Workers Community.
Lunch break is the only moment when Kimchroy can unwind without a mask. Four of her colleagues sit around her in a zigzag pattern, which prevents them from sitting across from each other. She pulls out her mobile phone and shows them pictures of her family. Her ease and happiness are palpable as she giggles with the other women.
“After joining the Su Su campaign, I now have more awareness on protection measures against COVID-19,” she says. “It has motivated me and I think my positive attitude has been contagious. I encourage everyone to keep moving forward, to not give up.”
Across the seven project countries, over 4.3 million workers, their families, and community members were supported through awareness and behaviour change communication initiatives and over 50, 000 vulnerable workers and service providers received personal protection kits. In addition, nearly 4700 persons including constituents, service providers, factory management, OSH Committee members, labour Inspectors and occupational health service providers participated in practical trainings on themes relevant to COVID 19 risks and prevention measures; 550 factories received direct support to conduct risk assessments and to develop emergency preparedness plans and more 850 factories were supported to comply with national COVID-19 guidelines.