When an overloaded and illegally built storage level at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kampong Speu province collapsed last May 16, officials went into damage control, promising to compensate victims using a relatively new state fund.
But one year after teenager Kim Dany and co-worker Rim Roeun, 22, were crushed to death at the factory – which supplies Japanese footwear firm Asics – the multimillion-dollar National Social Security Fund (NSSF) has yet to pay Dany’s family compensation beyond funeral costs.
The NSSF, established in 2007 to insure private-sector workers and their families in the event of injury or death, has not paid Dany’s parents a survivors’ pension, despite provisions for such benefits enshrined in the law.
“I don’t think the government will pay me,” Dany’s father, Korn Vet, 45, said this week. “So, I am not surprised. But I’m not feeling angry, because the company [Asics] has already paid – and I don’t want to think about it more, because my daughter has already died.”
It’s natural that Vet wants to move on. But the reasons the NSSF gave for not paying may have broader implications for Cambodia’s garment workers, said Dave Welsh, country manager for labour rights group Solidarity Center.
Using a “very strict reading of the law”, the NSSF decided not to pay Dany’s parents because they were under the age of 55, Welsh said. But they also will not get payments once they turn 55, which Welsh said was "absurd".
“They used every mechanism possible not to apply the law,” he said.
The wider danger now, Welsh believes, is that the families of other workers might also be denied compensation if their child is killed at work.
“[It] would disqualify almost all garment workers,” Welsh said, referring to an industry with a large number of single young women in their 20s. “Most aren’t going to have parents in their 50s.”
Articles 19 and 20 of the Law on Social Security Schemes specify that survivors of an employee killed at work – including parents “under the tutelage” of the victim – are entitled to a pension as compensation. It does not appear to specify age restrictions.
According to the NSSF’s website, “dependents” of the employee, including parents, are entitled to a survivors’ pension for the remainder of their lives worth about 28 per cent of their child’s wage.
In Dany’s household, like in many in rural areas, finances depended on the income made by the children as well as the parents. Indeed, Dany – whose birth certificate showed she was only 13 at the time of her death, according to Asics – had lied about her name and age to gain work at Wing Star.
Dany’s sister, Kim Sameth, said after the ceiling collapse that she and her sister felt an obligation to provide for their parents “because our family is poor”.
“We knew conditions in garment factories were bad, but families like ours depend on this kind of work.”
The NSSF is not light on revenue. Employers pay fees equivalent to 0.8 per cent of workers' monthly salaries to the fund as insurance against injury and death in the workplace.
Based on a calculation of 500,000 employees earning a minimum of $100 per month, the garment sector alone pours at least $400,000 per month into the fund – and $4.8 million per year. With the NSSF expanding to broader health coverage and, eventually, a retirement pension scheme, fees will be even more.
According to its most recent annual report, the fund handled almost 10,000 cases last year, consisting mainly of workplace injuries and some deaths, which resulted in combined compensation payments of more than $1.7 million.
While it’s a factory’s responsibility to contribute to the fund, Wing Star’s shipping manager, Chan Kosal, said yesterday that he was not sure whether the NSSF had paid anything to Dany’s family, but added that all his workers were registered.
“In Kim Dany’s case, her family has already been compensated by the company and the buyer,” he said. “As for the NSSF, I have no idea because I have had no contact with her family.”
Kosal added that the NSSF worked directly with bereaved families without providing information to the factories.
After pressure from labour rights advocates, Asics, the only buyer from Wing Star, made undisclosed, “sizeable” payouts to the two grieving families last July, ensuring financial security.
Although some were content to consider that the end of the matter, others – including Asics itself – stressed the importance of the NSSF playing its role too.
“I think we did what our responsibility is,” Asics Corp senior executive officer Ron Pietersen said at the time. “If there is a responsibility for the NSSF, take your responsibility.”
Welsh, from ACILS, believes there is and said it is important to remember that a major brand offering compensation is, to this point, the exception and not the rule in Cambodia’s garment sector.
“Both families got payments from Asics – that should have been the difficult part,” he said. “The NSSF payments should have been automatic.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, agrees.
Thorn, a member of the NSSF’s governing body, which also includes representatives of the government, employers and employees, says it’s simple.
“The law requires them [the NSSF] to pay. There is an obligation,” he said.
But even for Roeun’s wife, Nuon Chhorvy, 21, who was left to raise a newborn baby alone after her husband’s death, obtaining money from the NSSF proved difficult.
After her family allegedly faced pressure from factory representatives to accept a one-off compensation offer – she eventually accepted about $15,000 from Wing Star – she was told by the NSSF that she would not be eligible for a survivors’ pension because she did not have a valid marriage certificate. This decision was eventually overturned.
Sum Sophorn, deputy director of the NSSF, declined to comment this week because he was on holiday, while Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Suor said he was not familiar with the Wing Star case.
But while Sour did not know whether the NSSF was required to offer one-off payments or pensions to bereaved families, he saw a clear obligation for the fund to look after them, he said.
“If a worker is killed [at their workplace], it is the responsibility of the NSSF to pay their family.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID AND CHHAY CHANNYDA