Wages, poverty, and health in the time of Covid-19: Focus on Southeast Asia

By APRN | May 05, 2020

As we continue to struggle against one of the most recent global crises in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers continue to sacrifice their health and safety in exchange for livelihood. Government policies and big businesses are pushing forward and demanding immediate normalcy status, putting workers at a high risk of infection, all while public healthcare systems remain powerless against the pandemic.

On Wages

Government-sponsored quantitative data suggests that Southeast Asia is home to the world’s rising economies with the rise of GDPs annually. The backbone for this perceived economic growth is the cheap labor market rivaling that of China. Workers have always received the short end of the stick – being compensated with dismal wages; deprived of government-mandated benefits; having limited freedoms in the workplace, if any; and experiencing the worst working conditions.

In 9 out of 11 countries in Southeast Asia, as per national laws, registered workers earn a bare minimum of USD 3 to a little over USD 5 daily. This wage level does not guarantee decent living conditions, especially given the current situation. The minimum daily wage in 4 out of 11 countries range from USD 8 daily to USD 34 in Singapore, the city-state with one of the highest standards of living in the world. In general, women, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, and youth earn less than the minimum wage.

Cases of wage suppression and mass lay-offs have been rampant, with capitalist businesses prioritizing profit instead of employee livelihood and safety. Factory and office shutdowns have left daily-wage laborers with nothing, with amelioration and benefits not being provided in the midst of intensifying health and economic crises.

On Poverty

Poverty in the region is rife. As per modest 2018 estimates, there are about 170 million people living in poverty or below the poverty line in the sub-region. According to an ASEAN report on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in 2017, 36 million people were living below the poverty line and 90 percent of the Southeast Asian poor are concentrated in Indonesia and the Philippines (Chrisholm, November 21, 2017). Coincidentally, both countries currently have the highest numbers of cases for COVID-19 in Southeast Asia.

The pandemic has amplified the effects of poverty, making the poor the most vulnerable to the virus. Workers have experienced unprecedented job loss.

In Southeast Asia, at the onset of the CoVID-19 outbreak in March, Chinese special economic zones in Laos closed. Because flights to China and South Korea were canceled, Laos Airlines had to lay off 1,000 staff or half of its workers. Workers in Cambodia went on strike after their factory stopped its operations for a lack of inputs from China. More than 5,000 workers became unemployed because some factories had to close. Moreover, the president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation in Cambodia stated that 33 factories have shut. Consequently, 17,000 workers have been suspended to prevent possible virus outbreaks. Plants in Myanmar also began shutting down causing mass layoffs. Three textile and shoe factories in Yangon’s Shwepyithar and Hlaing Tharyar industrial zones also closed leaving 2,000 workers jobless (Chan, 2020).

According to IBON Foundation, with 2018 to 2019 data on the Philippine labor force, 18.9 million working Filipinos or 45 percent of the 42.4 million employed have been displaced by the community quarantine. This means that these Filipino workers have either lost their jobs, been relegated to do part-time work, received reduced pay, and experienced other disruptions in livelihood, especially by informal earners. About 7.7 million working families, however, haven’t received any aid from the government, plunging a significant portion of the population to deeper poverty (IBON Foundation, 2020).

As of May 1, the Indonesian Textile Association stated that two million garment factory workers in Indonesia have lost their jobs as their factories are operating at about 20 percent of capacity. In Cambodia, Heng Sour, spokesperson for the labor industry noted that jobless textile workers have reached 100,000. They used to run production in 130 factories. Myanmar’s current number of jobless factory workers has increased from 2,000 in March to 60,000 (Associated Press, May 1, 2020).

Coupled with repressive lockdowns and slow distribution of government assistance, there is utter neglect to the workers who toil and the other vulnerable sectors who need economic relief the most.

On Health

Based on 2017 data from the World Health Organization, only two countries in the region allocate more than 10 percent of the government budget to health spending, while the rest run from 3 percent to 9 percent of the total government spending. In light of this, public healthcare systems in the region have taken a huge hit. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the lack of preparation and prioritization of governments towards the healthcare sector, and the people are paying for it.

In 8 of 11 countries, out-of-pocket spending of current health expenditures range from 35 percent to 76 percent. Myanmar stands out with 76 percent out-of-pocket spending (2017 current health expenditures) while its citizens receive the lowest minimum wage at USD 3.32 per day. Trends in the data also suggest that the out-of-pocket expenses by citizens are conceivably larger than what their governments spend on healthcare itself.

At this point, wherein job loss is on the rise and earning even the minimum wage is not assured, we call on governments to be genuinely responsive to the needs of the workers and the marginalized groups.

Medical solutions should be more essential than repression in the implementation of community quarantines. People’s health should be prioritized instead of profit. In concrete terms, poor workers who comprise a large population of people in Southeast Asia should be given protection in the workplace and free healthcare. Provision of social amelioration to aid those who have lost jobs should be expedited.#


Associated Press. (May 1, 2020). May Day marks pain, not celebration for workers hit by virus.
In Inquirer.net. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from

Chan, Nandar. (March 8, 2020). Southeast Asia sees factory shutdowns and massive lay-offs
due to Covid-19 outbreak. In Radio Free Asia. Retrieved May 1, 2020 from


Chrisholm, Johanna. (November 21, 2017). Indonesia and the Philippines have 90% of Southeast Asia’s poorest. In Globe: Lines of Thought Across Southeast Asia. Retrieved
May 1, 2020, from https://southeastasiaglobe.com/indonesia-philippines-poore…/

IBON Media. (May 1, 2020). ECQ disrupts livelihood of 19M: Millions of working people left
behind by poor gov’t response. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from

International Labor Organization. (7 April 2020). ILO: COVID-19 causes devastating losses in working hours and employment. Retrieved May 1, 2020, from https://www.ilo.org/…/n…/news/WCMS_740893/lang–en/index.htm

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