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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Death amid the rubble

Death amid the rubble

1 collapsed building pha lina
Authorities search through rubble at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kampong Speu province yesterday after a collapsed ceiling killed two workers and injured 11 others. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

Two footwear workers were killed and 11 others were injured yesterday at the Wing Star Shoes Co, Ltd, factory when a storage level that authorities said had been illegally constructed collapsed onto workers.

Sim Srey Touch, who according to family members was only 15, and 24-year-old Reung Chak died at the factory, a supplier to Japanese company Asics after the overloaded ceiling gave way at about 7am, sending concrete and metal crashing down on them.

Police and military officers from the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit pulled survivors from the rubble of the factory, in Kampong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district.

Mam Narai, director of the construction department at the provincial Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, said the level had been built without approval from authorities.

“They did not ask permission from us,” he said, adding that the level had been nothing more than a thin concrete platform that had no chance of sustaining the weight of what was stored on it. The factory itself, Narai added, had been built only a year ago.

“When we tried to inspect it [during the construction phase], security guards did not let us in, saying the owner was abroad.”

Kampong Speu Governor Ou Sam Oun said the platform, measuring about nine metres by 14 metres, had been poorly constructed and had not gained approval from authorities.

“They never asked permission from us,” he said. “From now on . . . we won’t allow this.”

Men Siborn, a military police chief in Kampong Speu province, confirmed late yesterday that two workers had been killed and 11 injured in the collapse.

“The man who died was Reung Chak, 24 years old,” he said, adding that he was from Takeo province’s Bati district. “The woman who died was Sim Srey Touch, 22,” he said.

As family and friends huddled around the body of Srey Touch in a small village not far from the factory, Nuon Nget told reporters that her daughter was only 15 and had lied about her age to gain work at Wing Star.

“She began working there on May 2 and did not yet get a salary,” she said. “My daughter used a fake document that said she was 22 or 23 to get work.”

Two other family members also said Srey Touch was 15, but when asked again later, Nuon said she was “22 or 23”.

“I do not want compensation from the factory. I want to see my daughter survive,” she said. “She was so young.”

Three of Srey Touch’s sisters, including Yim Pao, 23, began working at the factory on the same day.

“I was working in another building and heard a thunderous sound and ran to see what was happening,” the 23-year-old said. “I came out and saw the police carrying my sister from the rubble, and I went into shock.

“When they told me she was dead, I could not speak. I just dropped to my knees and cried.”

Chea Sothavirith, administration director at Wing Star Shoes, said he could not comment on the age of Srey Touch.

“As far as I know now, there are two dead, 11 injured, so I can’t say more, and we will have a meeting this afternoon with the authorities about what to do with the families,” he said.

The company had offered $1,000 to each family for funeral arrangements but could pay more, he said.

Khout Kol, 19, whose family lives close to Srey Touch’s, was working in a different part of the factory when the collapse occurred.

“At first, I didn’t know if people died, but later, I saw the military police carry the bodies out. I was so scared that I ran home,” she said, standing near Srey Touch’s body. “Now I am still in shock, because my friend is dead – and she had not even been paid once yet.”

Kol said problems such as fainting had happened before at the factory, and she doubted she could go back.

Speaking outside the factory, Ith Sam Heng, minister of Social Affairs, promised a full investigation into the collapse.

“We will investigate this issue and take action against all people involved for allowing this to happen,” he said.

“Following this incident, we will create an inspection committee to investigate all the factories in the country in the case that we suspect irregularities, and the inspection committee will have [inspections every] month, three months and in special cases.”

Sam Heng said only about 100 people were working in that section of the factory, which employs 7,000, and the death toll could have been much higher if it had happened elsewhere in the building. He said the government intended to assist with compensation from a social fund.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The body of Sim Srey Touch is surrounded by family and community members in her home after she was crushed by falling metal and concrete at the Wing Star Shoes factory accident in Kampong Speu province yesterday. Photograph: Shane Worrell/Phnom Penh Post

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Emergency medics evacuate injured workers to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh yesterday. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Worker Thon Sophea, 25, said she was devastated by the death of her friend, Reung Chak, who had only recently celebrated the birth of his child.

“His wife delivered a baby just a month ago,” she said. “[Chak] lost some part of his leg during the crush. His body has been taken to his homeland in Takeo.”

Within hours of the collapse, a company excavator was knocking down part of the building nearby after authorities said they were convinced no one else was buried underneath the rubble.

Hundreds of police and military police patrolled after ambulances had earlier taken the injured to provincial hospitals and Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh.

At Calmette, seven female workers were treated for head, chest, shoulder and leg injuries.

Among them was Nget Khon, 35, from Bati district, who said a huge chunk of concrete crashed through the ceiling, before many other items followed.

“While I was polishing shoes, everything began crashing down on the machines,” she said.

As she rushed to safety, a piece of metal struck her in the head and chest.

“They kept too many things up there,” she said.

Two women were given X-rays to check for serious head injuries, but all were later released.

Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng visited the hospital, but refused to comment.

Sam Heng, the Social Affairs minister, said the factory would close for at least two or three days.

But Dave Welsh, American Center for International Labor Solidarity country manager, said late yesterday that there was no indication from factory management that they would close today.

“The behaviour of the factory is incredible,” he said. “Asics is the only brand they supply to. From what I understand, ILO told Asics about this, not the factory.

“We call on the other NGOs to mount a case against the brands and the companies for compensation for the families.”

Welsh said the factory, which is listed by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia as being locally owned, shared that owner with two other footwear factories that had previously been linked with prison and child labour.

“I don’t want to use the term timeliness – it’s a tragedy – but . . . for this to happen in the month when people are focusing not just on Bangladesh, but on the region . . . it will have a chilling effect on factories throughout the country.”

International eyes have been on the region’s garment sectors since the death of more than 1,000 workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh last month.

A spokeswoman for Asics Corp said that Wing Star Shoes made running shoes for the company.

“Our prayers go out to the families of those who have died,” she said.

Asics relies on sports shoes for about two-thirds of its sales, which amounted to 57.33 billion yen ($560 million) through the first three months of this year.

Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Cambodian Legal Education Centre, said his organisation had raised concerns about Wing Star Shoes in the past, especially related to health and safety.

In the year since opening, workers have gone on strike demanding higher wages and better conditions.

Tola asked whether the ILO-Better Factories monitoring program could have identified potential problems in the factory.

But Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser of Better Factories Cambodia, said BFC had only recently expanded its monitoring into footwear factories.

“Our footwear program is only voluntary,” said “We did not monitor this factory. But we’re horrified by this.”

Ken Loo, GMAC secretary-general, said he would leave it up to authorities to investigate what had happened.

“[I]t does not appear to be the case that they had overloaded the mezzanine floor that collapsed, because all there was was cardboard boxes and accessories,” he said.

“It appears that the concrete that was the floor of the mezzanine level basically gave way.

“It looks like the steel bars that were holding the concrete together look very flimsy and indeed if that was the case, it would be quite unfair to blame the factory, because obviously that work was contracted out and the factory would have relied on the contractor for those technical specifications.”

Loo said the incident was a one-off accident and not the same thing as what had happened in Bangladesh.

The collapse coincided with a number of global brands agreeing to sign an accord with union and NGOs to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. “The race to the bottom stops here. The tragic events in Cambodia overnight confirm that we need a new era of responsible retailing,” said Philip Jennings, general secretary of UNI Global Union.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOYLE AND REUTERS

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