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Laborers ditch construction for farms

17-construction.jpg
17-construction.jpg

Developers hit with labor shortage as seasonal workers leave cities

TRACEY SHELTON

Construction workers leave a building site at CAMKO City following their shift, on June 3. Urban developers are facing a labor shortage as seasonal farm work draws many of the sector’s casual laborers away from the cities and back to the provinces.

A nationwide building boom and the return of seasonal workers to their farms to grow rice have created a labor shortage in the construction sector, say company managers and others involved in the industry.

Sok Vanndath, president of the Cambodian National Federation of Building and Wood Workers, said more than 10,000 of its members were working in the sector.

"But that's not enough and construction companies are asking our federation to help them find more workers," Vanndath said.

"It's the rainy season, so many construction workers have returned home for rice farming," he said.

The annual seasonal migration to the provinces has left one building company with fewer than half its usual workforce.

"We used to employ more than 100 workers but more than 50 have returned home for rice farming," said Suy Sive, owner of the Suy Sive Construction Company.

Sok Lay Ouk, a manager at the Lay Green Way Construction Company, said it had been short of hundreds of workers for the past three years.

"We have four construction sites in Phnom Penh and we need about another 100 workers at each site," Lay Ouk said.

He said that since land prices begin rising in 2005, some farm-owning seasonal workers had been able to stop work after selling their properties.

Referring to the labor shortage in Phnom Penh, Lay Ouk said it was partly because of the building boom taking place throughout Cambodia, providing many workers with the option of being able to work closer to home.

Government figures show there are more than 2,000 construction sites throughout the country.

Lay Ouk said another reason for the shortage was a Ministry of Labor agreement with 13 job placement companies in 2007 that resulted in 3,399 workers going to South Korea.

"That's not true," countered Im Chamrong, the general director of the General Department of Construction, under the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

"The employers can overcome the labor shortage crisis if they pay their workers more; it's a case of labor market competition," Chamrong said.

He said the construction sector employed about 40,000 skilled workers, but the number of unskilled workers in the industry is unknown because they were seasonal employees.

Among the seasonal workers heading home to grow rice is Chear Saroun, 27, and his two younger brothers.

"For us, the construction sector offers alternative employment when we're not growing rice," said Saroun, from Sre Rang village, in Ponhea Leu district of Kandal province.

Saroun and his brothers have worked on construction sites in Phnom Penh since 2005 to supplement the family's income.

They take up to four months off a year to grow rice on three hectares of land, from which they harvest more than four tonnes.

"We can't keep our rice-field empty," said Saroun, adding that he and his brothers would return to Phnom Penh to work on construction sites after the harvest.

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