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Constructing a safer industry

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A worker uses a sledgehammer to demolish a building on Sisowath Quay. Injuries on construction sites are frequent and safety precautions are rarely enforced, according to the government. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post

Construction worker Samnang (not his real name), spent weeks confined to a hospital bed after piles of cement crashed down on him while he toiled without a hard hat.

During the ensuing weeks of recovery at his home, the 28-year-old nursed head injuries and a broken arm — without anything in the way of financial or moral support from his employer.

Eventually, he was told to go back to work or lose his job. Needing money, but still in pain, he had no choice but to comply. He returned to find nothing had changed.

“We have no safety procedures in place, and we’re not using safety equipment,” he said. “Construction workers face a lot of risks at work, so we need the government to create a law to protect our safety.”

A Ministry of Labour plan to address a rise in deaths and injuries at construction sites, announced yesterday in the lead-up to Cambodia’s third and final ASEAN summit as chair, may go some way to addressing Samnang’s concerns.

Leng Tong, director of the ministry’s occupational health and safety department, said officials had proposed amending the Labour Law to include four prakases designed to protect workers in the burgeoning construction industry.

“We’re worried because workplace accidents in this industry are soaring,” he said.

“We see how unsafe conditions are, and we’re urging safety equipment for all.”

The ministry’s latest figures revealed 21 workers had died at construction sites between January 1 and June 30, while 5,948 were injured, Tong said.

Both figures have increased marginally from the corresponding period last year.

“It’s difficult to blame workers for these accidents,” Tong said. “Employers must be made to examine their working conditions and ensure sites are safe.”

The prakases would address issues relating to the use of safety equipment, including helmets and harnesses; the transport of heavy materials to elevated heights; general safety and hygiene; and workers’ access to information regarding building sites, Tong said.

Huy Han Song, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said such reform was required to bring Cambodia’s safety standards into line with its regional neighbours, but he did not say when he expected the changes to be introduced.

“Our safety system is very weak if we compare it to other countries in ASEAN,” he said. “Safety is lacking on big construction sites as well as on small housing projects.”

American Centre for International Labor Solidarity country director Dave Welsh said more deaths seemed inevitable unless the government followed through with its plans.

“We’ve been pushing them on this for a long time,” he said. “[Reform] is the way to go about it. It’s definitely necessary.”

Despite the informal and sporadic nature of some construction work, employees had the right to safe conditions, Welsh said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Sen David at david.sen@phnompenhpost.com ; Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com

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