Vatha, a 42-year-old construction worker, has been toiling for four years at numerous building sites across Phnom Penh.
He knocks down dilapidated dwellings and in their place builds houses and apartments that are bigger, better – and increasingly higher – as demand for residential property, especially rentals, surges.
It’s a dangerous job, Vatha says – especially without any protective gear.
“I don’t have any safety equipment when I work,” the father of three says, adding that he works at great heights, is often exposed to falling debris and uses power equipment daily. “My boss just tells me to be careful.”
In four years, Vatha has never had a pay increase. In fact, he has never even had a contract.
On a good day, he can make about US$3.75 – but the bad days, which mean no work and therefore no money, are all too frequent.
Vatha’s story is a familiar one, says Ken Chhenglang, secretary-general of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia.
“Working conditions for construction workers are worse than garment workers because they have the uncertainty of whether or not they will receive a daily wage,” she says.
“And workers face many dangers at work. They do not have equipment, and conditions are even worse when they’re working out in the rain.”
Van Thol, first vice president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, says falls and electric shocks account for the majority of injuries.
“A lot of workers do not use any kind of safety [harness],” he says, adding that this is because employers do not provide such equipment or workers choose not to use it.
“Some companies just don’t care about the safety of their workers.”
This is not the case for Seng San, 52, who owns a small building company in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district.
San, who has been managing construction workers since 1979, says he would like to provide his workers with helmets, goggles and harnesses, but just can’t afford it.
“I do not have safety equipment for my workers to protect themselves during working, but I always tell them to be careful,” he says.
He stands by his record of never having an employee injured while building houses, apartments or fences.
According to a recent study by consulting firm BDLINK, titled Worker Wages and the Cost of Labour in Cambodia: A Review of the Construction Sector, 80 per cent of workers profiled are scared they will come to harm at work.
Their families are also concerned they will not be able to cover costs if this happens.
Sunny Soo, country head of property firm Knight Frank, says occupational health and safety is not yet ingrained in the culture, nor is the habit of companies insuring themselves against their workers being injured.
“Local companies may not [always] buy insurance.”
Due to the informal nature of employment in the industry, alleged threats of dismissal for unionising and workers’ inability to collectively bargain, unions realise change could be hard to achieve.
“We hold campaigns each year for improvements to [wages] and health and safety standards,” Chhenglang says.
“But we represent only about 1 per cent of workers. And most construction workers move from place to place.”
Cambodia’s proposed trade union law, which will give construction workers the opportunity to collectively bargain, may strengthen their push for change.
Despite calls from Prime Minister Hun Sen for movement, the law remains at the Council of Ministers in draft form, where it has been since November.
The government would not confirm yesterday if or when it will be enacted.