The skeletons of future skyscrapers are modernising Phnom Penh's skyline, but with safety standards rarely enforced, construction workers are still condemned to the dark ages
Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Workers put up rebar and structual supports at a building under construction on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
THE race is on to build Phnom Penh's first skyscraper, but as the fast-modernising city transforms, safety standards appear to be stuck in the past.
The Kingdom's construction business is booming, attracting investments of US$3.2 billion in the first six months of this year and luring some 40,000 seasonal construction workers from impoverished provinces.
But, as construction worker Chan Vuthy can attest, work safety has deteriorated as buildings spring up.
The day a blade from a malfunctioning saw cut deep into his knee, the 23-year-old was wearing flip-flops, a cloth hat and no protective equipment.
When he stumbled to the bottom of the site, his boss scolded him for recklessness. He was then fired, and had to spend his savings on a month of hospital treatment.
"Every time other workers and I have accidents, they say we are careless," Chan Vuthy says.
Cambodian construction workers risk their lives for an average wage of $2.50 a day, says Sok Sovandeth, president of the Cambodia National Federation of Building and Wood Workers.
There are no laws to force construction enterprises to pay adequate wages, so many workers must live on building sites.
Few of them have any training, and companies have little incentive to take measures to avoid accidents or use equipment such as hard helmets, work boots or safety harnesses.
"We're very worried about poor working conditions that have not been improved or guaranteed by law," Sok Sovandeth said, adding that construction work is the most dangerous kind of labour in the country.
"We are not happy when workers are not safely equipped. After some inspections, we found a lot of building sites and companies do not give out safety materials."
Many construction companies lay the blame for poor safety on workers who do not protect themselves.
So far the government has sided with businesses, taking no action to ensure better work conditions amid the building boom that helped fuel years of double-digit economic growth.
"The whole country acknowledges that construction is the third gem besides the agriculture and garment sectors to boost the domestic economy," says Im Chamrong, head of Cambodia's General Department of Construction.
"Some construction companies can't afford the safety equipment. We cannot force them to buy it," Im Chamrong says.
With few zoning regulations, new construction projects tower over traditional Khmer homes and the old French villas built in the colonial era.
In June, a South Korean company broke ground on a 52-storey tower slated to be the country's tallest skyscraper when it is completed in 2012, while all across the capital tall buildings are going up.
The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, with about 35 percent of the population still existing on less than 50 cents a day.
These are the men and women who end up migrating to the capital and risking their lives on building sites for a couple of dollars a day.
There are no statistics for accidents in Cambodia's construction industry, but there are many anecdotes about deaths and injuries to workers.
"There have been a lot of people being killed accidentally, but some companies try to hide the figure of the dead and victims," Sok Sovandeth says.
He added that the country needs better labour laws to save lives. AFP