A series of Covid-19 outbreaks in Thai factories is raising concerns that exports could be hit hard, threatening to further undermine the economy as it struggles to recover from the pandemic’s devastating blow to the crucial tourism industry.
As of Sunday, the virus has swept through over 130 factories, including those supplying major international brands.
More than 7,100 cases in factories across 11 provinces now make manufacturing one of the top sources of infections along with prisons and construction camps.
130 factories is just a fraction of around 63,000 factories in Thailand that employ nearly 3.5 million workers, but officials are nervous about the impact on exports that have kept the struggling economy moving as income from tourism collapsed.
In 2020, exports accounted for 45% of gross domestic product.
Electronics, rubber gloves, and food are among the exports hit by infections, Federation of Thai Industries vice-chairman Kriengkrai Thiennukul told Reuters.
He said it was too early to assess the overall impact. “If it continues, the damage will increase so factories have to be fully vaccinated,” he said.
Some of the manufacturers hit by outbreaks have already had to quarantine workers and temporarily close or cut back production.
Charoen Pokphand Foods, which exports to 40 countries, said a factory that was closed due to infections accounted for 10% of national broiler chicken production.
Instant noodle maker, Thai President Foods closed a factory that produces rice vermicelli and rice noodles. Overseas sales accounted for about a third of the company’s food sales.
Thailand has recorded a total of nearly 200,000 Covid-19 infections and 1,466 deaths so far. Over 80% of new cases and 90% of the fatalities have been reported since April.
The government has been trying to contain the outbreak with a “bubble and seal” policy, which is initiated when 10% of a factory’s workers are infected.
Confirmed cases are then sent for treatment while the remainder are kept at the factory for 28 days. Workers at factories and in construction camps, many of them migrants who live on site are unable to leave their workplace, even if they are not infected.
“It’s not appropriate,” said Suthasinee Kaewleklai, Migrant Workers Rights Network coordinator in Thailand. “The authorities should be doing more tests.”
Suthasinee said that companies should improve conditions, give more space for social distancing and increase training for workers so those who are healthy can avoid infection.
The industry ministry has given factories until the end of June to upgrade conditions including providing mandatory face masks and administering temperature checks.
A government official defended the bubble and seal policy, saying it allows businesses to continue operations and limits the outbreak.
“Those with symptoms will be sent for treatment, others will be in the bubble. If it spreads it will spread in there and not outside,” health official Taweesap Siraprapasiri told Reuters.
“This limits the outbreak and allows business to continue.”