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Standards building up safety fears

4 industrial building crash

When a 100-metre-long section of a Phnom Penh garment factory crumpled in on itself like a cheap pup tent, Sen Sok district officials promised an investigation.

Alhough no one was hurt, Phnom Penh Municipal Hall formed a committee, they said, to look into the structural failure of the just-finished building, which was slated to hold an inauguration ceremony with hundreds of guests only a few days later.

The results of that investigation, which was to have taken place more than a year ago, in March 2012, were never made public, and officials at the time refused to release the names of those who owned the land the building sat on or the firm responsible for its construction.

Another factory caved in on itself less than six months later, this time before its completion, just as its roof was being installed. Sixteen workers were injured, with some sustaining broken hips and legs in the collapse, which authorities attributed to cheap materials and shoddy construction.

Now, with the collapse of structures at the Wing Star Shoes and Top World Garment factories killing two and injuring dozens in the past week, government officials are promising more inspections still, while insiders say that standards for the construction of the Kingdom’s prolific factories, by and large, are still practically nonexistent.

As one long-time real estate consultant put it: “It’s really waiting for the disasters to happen.”

Yesterday morning, on the sidelines of a conference on national industrial relations, a Ministry of Labor official reiterated Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng’s promise to inspect all of Cambodia’s factories.

At the same conference, World Bank country manager Alassane Sow called for greater attention to “badly constructed factories”, saying the prevention of even more accidents required “stricter enforcement of construction standards and co-operation between ministries responsible for regulation and inspection”.

However, said the real estate consultant, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic, there are, in fact, no such standards and regulations to speak of.

“There is no enforcement on safety regulations at the moment.  All the safety precautions, it’s all up to the local builder,” the consultant said.

“In most developed countries, most construction space, at least a chief engineer will have to sign off on the structures . . . And every load of concrete that you pour, a sample of concrete will have to be taken and sent to the lab,” he continued. “All of this, this kind of system, is not in place in terms of [rules] in this country.”

The lack of standards and rigorous documentation during construction, he went on, also affect the market, making it difficult to find properties whose structural integrity could be vouched for – even if there were so-called “building due diligence” specialists in Cambodia to do the vouching.

According to the consultant, foreign construction companies who are accustomed to high levels of oversight often maintain those standards when operating in Cambodia.

For local companies, however, the lack of accountability makes it easier to “compromise on this kind of compliance”.

“You may have a system in place, you may have a procedure in place, but it may all be hollow. It may just be a show,” he continued. “So even if there is a department in the construction department or the ministry – at the minute there isn’t one – but even if there is one, it’s hard to tell how this country really enforces all that construction safety.”

Van Thol, vice president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), said that while he believes there are inspectors, he doesn’t necessarily believe they do their job.

“I believe the government’s land management ministry, or authority in charge of construction does inspect when [someone is] constructing a factory, but there is still a problem with safety. Do they go down to inspect the quality of the construction, or just to get their ‘benefits’ without inspecting?” he asked.

Like the real estate consultant, Thol said that many companies use shoddy materials, and fail to adhere to standards, and that problems can be compounded when subcontractors step in.

“Licensed construction companies are hired by a factory to do its construction, but those licensed firms rent out other, smaller, unlicensed construction firms to build it, and they don’t really follow the standards,” he said.

Even with a lack of outside enforcement, the garment industry isn’t stepping up to regulate itself in the field of building safety.

Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said yesterday that his organisation had no regulations concerning the structural soundness of its members’ facilities, and wasn’t likely to implement any.

“It’s not our duty in the first place,” he said, adding that GMAC only accepts already-operational factories, “so our entry point would be too late”.

“We do our duty, which is ensure that factories are bona fide manufacturers, not ghost shell operations,” he added.

Responsibility for failures in Phnom Penh factories’ soundness doesn’t fall to the department of land management either, said department deputy director Sar Bamnong.

“In general, I can say that for the factory that collapsed, the one who should hold responsibility is the construction firm and engineer; we only join the inspection,” said Bamnong, who said he was unaware of Monday’s collapse at Top World.

“If it’s a collapse due to less metal in a building, the construction firm must be responsible.”

Officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs and city hall could not be reached yesterday for details on current and past investigations.

But for all the scrutiny being applied to the Kingdom’s garment factories, they aren’t the only ones suffering from cut corners and unsafe materials, the real estate consultant said.

“I also hear that some of the projects that are so well known in this country are cutting costs on the thickness of the steel bar,” he said.

“All the buyer[s] [are] at the mercy of the developer.”

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