Carmakers in Southeast Asia are reluctant to hit the accelerator

BANGKOK -- Automakers operating in Southeast Asia are moving in low gear as they bring plants back online after weeks of suspended production due to the coronavirus pandemic. Safety protocols and weak sales force them to proceed slowly in restarting operations.

Since May, most Southeast Asian nations have been easing restrictions on business operations and people's movements that were introduced to contain the outbreak. In response to government moves to gradually bring things back to normal, Japanese carmakers, which control most of the region's auto market and production, have begun to reopen their plants.

The number of vehicles manufactured in May in Thailand, the largest producer in Southeast Asia, grew 130% from the previous month to 56,035 units, the Federation of Thai Industries said Thursday. The figure represents a sharp 69% drop from a year earlier, but nevertheless signals that the recovery process from the devastating damage inflicted by the pandemic has started.

Surapong Paisitpattanapong, vice president of the Automotive Industry Club, part of the Federation of Thai Industries, said, "it is likely that sales hit the bottom in April."

Toyota Motor resumed operation at all three of its plants in Thailand by May 25. In line with the safety guidelines set by the Thai government, Toyota has installed a set of protocols that include taking the temperature of workers entering the plant and requiring them to sanitize their hands frequently.

The Japanese company has also changed flow plans at its plants to prevent required social distancing from hurting productivity where employees usually work closely together. The company has also banned employees from taking seats next to each other at factory cafeterias or on commuter buses.

In Malaysia, carmakers including the national marque Perodua resumed plant operations in early May. The Malaysian government has allowed manufacturers to reopen on condition that they comply with the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), official guidelines for preventing the spread of the virus.

The SOP mandates the implementation of extensive safety protocols that require employees to go through a health screening at the plant entrance, including checking for such potential symptoms as a fever, cough, a sore throat and shortness of breath. Employees are also required to sanitize their hands and wear a mask as they enter a building. Production and other facilities must be disinfected three times a day. Workers need to stay at least 1 meter apart from each other while working or using areas within plants such as cafeterias and prayer rooms for Muslims.

The SOP also applies to car dealers and repair shops. Malaysian carmaker Proton has introduced a reservation system that requires customers to book slots for repair and maintenance services in advance. It has also set an upper limit on the number of reservations accepted by a shop per day. Customers need to arrive at the shop 20 minutes before the slot they have reserved and go through a health screening. After the repair work is finished, the car is disinfected before it is returned to the customer. Honda Motor's dealerships ask customers to wear gloves when they test-drive a car.

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