Vat Oudom chose not to go back to Cambodia when Thailand announced that it was going to close its borders to curtail the coronavirus outbreak. He chose to stay because he had legal status in Thailand, he had a place to stay and most importantly, his work at a Bangkok construction site was going ahead.
Many of his Cambodian friends in Bangkok left, however, driven away by the closing down of jobs, the lack of other opportunities and the threat of contracting a deadly disease in a foreign country.
“I am not worried about losing my job,” Oudom told Thai Enquirer outside of a central Bangkok construction site. “My boss says that we will not be stopping work anytime soon.”
Full steam ahead
While the Thai government recommends that all businesses go on hiatus except for necessary ones, construction firms have pushed ahead with plans to build residences and offices.
“We are still active on every project, we have ten under construction with 9 in Bangkok and one in Pattaya, said Wirote Kappiyajanya, the Chief Synergy Officer at Ananda Development.
“The management team is also working in three areas including our offices at Rama IX, in Bang Na and on construction sites,” he told Thai Enquirer.
Ananda Development is not the only developer continuing with projects, out of 7 firms large and small operating in Greater Bangkok all were still operating yet only Ananda agreed to an interview on record.
Contractors say they face a tough choice because they were contractually obligated to developers and must push ahead.
“It is a difficult decision to make as contractually we cannot stop work unless it is mandated directly by the government or the client,” said the owner of one construction company who requested anonymity. “If the government makes it compulsory to stop then we will but if not then we could be sued by the client for not finishing on time.”
The World Health Organization and the Thai government recommends social isolation and social distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus with ideally two meters of separation between all individuals.
This is not always possible at construction sites throughout Bangkok and the rest of the country.
Labourers work in close proximity and share packed-pickup trucks and open-air busses to and from their accommodations.
It is a concern that companies like Ananda Development say they take very seriously. According to Wirote, the company has installed foot-powered washbasins at all construction sites, screen temperatures for 100 per cent of their workers and ensure that all personnel on sites wear masks at all times.
Despite this, there has been one case of coronavirus at a subcontractor office.
“We closed that office and quarantined 12 people immediately,” said Wirote. “Luckily it was an internet-of-things company and not the main construction teams.”
Wirote said that Ananda was prepared to close down their sites should they find any cases of coronavirus but the situation has thankfully not yet come to pass.
It is unclear, however, how many other developers would be willing to do the same. Calls by Thai Enquirer to seven of the country’s luxury and mixed-used developers were not returned or were ignored. Sub-contracting construction firms said they had been issued a gag order by their clients on issues related to coronavirus.
Health officials have also grown concerned about construction sites and the possible spread of Covid-19.
“If you look at the construction sites, it is basically a petri dish for disease. The workers are forced to eat together, go to work together, they share tools and water cups and are always in close proximity,” said Parinya Laohateeranont, an inspector at the Department of Health.
“If one worker gets the disease, you can be assured that all of them will,” she said.
No choice but to work
But for workers like Vat Oudom, continuing to work was not really a matter of choice.
“I support my mother and sister in Cambodia and I send money to them,” he said. “If I stop working then there will be no one to support them. I am not worried about [the disease] there are bigger things that I worry about.”
Oudom’s story is not uncommon. For the Thai and foreign labourers working in Bangkok, the coronavirus was just another hazard in a dangerous occupation.
“If the construction site closes down, I do not know what I would do, I cannot go back home now.”