Kay Vath, who has been hand-making colored and decorated cement paving tiles in Phnom
Penh for 20 years, is struggling to survive against cheaper imported products.
Noun Lourn swings on the giant press to make a single tile out of a mixture of cement and sand.
It's only a customer preference for his exterior tiles, and occasional government
contracts (such as the current public park upgrading), that keeps him afloat.
He has three old-fashioned manual tile presses but most of the time only needs to
operate two. He employs six workers, and when business is slack they are free to
go to their provinces or find other work. He keeps their jobs open.
The factory and shop is on Russian Boulevard, near Teak Thla market. It doesn't have
a proper trading name, it's just known as Kay Vath's tile factory.
Vath, 61, said he began making tiles more than 20 years ago after he found that the
transportation for imported tiles from Vietnam was expensive and difficult, which
gave him the idea to manufacture locally. He started the business with Vietnamese
partners after the liberation of Phnom Penh from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese
"My business was good between 1979 and 1990, but it dropped about 90 percent
when tiles were freely imported to Cambodia," said Vath.
Unable to afford the capital and repair costs of engine-driven machines, Vath installed
three old manual model presses and modified them himself to work more efficiently.
"If we use an engine to pull for the compression, it costs me much money in
lost production when the machine is broken," said Vath.
Today he cannot compete with superior quality and lower-priced tiles from Vietnam,
Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan. The imports flooded in because of the increased
building construction activity in all parts of Cambodia as the economy improved.
"My only competitive edge is that my tiles are preferred for outside use,"
he says "Even in the pagodas they use the modern imported tile inside. It's
very bad for business."
He says he would have to restructure and reinvest in his business to compete with
imports, but he has no desire to do this.
"It's too risky and I doubt if I could match their quality and price. I just
want to keep my business sustainable for my children and the safe way to do this
is to stick to what we know best, and that's outside tiles."
Tile workers Noun Lourn, 40, and Nhem Sovann, 38, swing on the lever of the mould
press every day from morning till night to produce tiles. They make on average about
6,000 riel ($1.50) a day and get free food and a free bed.
Vath supplies gloves, masks and overalls to protect workers from dust and powders,
but they prefer not to use them as they need finger sensitivity to test mixtures
Sovann said the dust and powders did not affect their skin. He uses his hands to
mix color into the cement and sand which he puts into a printing plate, and then
presses it using a heavy hand-operated lever to make one tile.
Sovann has worked for two years and Lourn for six years and they are very skilled.
He hopes the business flourishes and they can keep their jobs because they could
not earn similar wages doing any other work.
Sovann said the money he makes cannot improve the standard of living for his wife
and three children but it is sustainable. Lourn, who has a wife and two children,
said his wages were just enough for a day's expenses.
Both have become tile makers without the benefit of training courses; they have learned
on the job. Vath is also self-taught.