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Construction workers at Borey Mongkul along National Road 1. Borey projects generally don’t pay as well as work in high-rise construction . Hong Menea

Weighing risk and reward on construction sites

As the booming construction sector attracts more rural Cambodians to seek employment in the capital, the different working conditions between high-rises in urban areas and borey developments have factored into varying degrees of earning potential and living standards.

According to estimates by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, there are 160,000 construction workers in the sector, while an ANZ report released earlier this year looked at the growth of wages between August 2013 and August 2014 stated that construction worker salaries varied from $8 a day for skilled labourers to $6 a day for unskilled workers.

On the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh, beneath an unfinished residential home at Borey Mongkul along National Road 1, 21-year-old Van watched the rice water boil as he added kindling to the fire. Behind him was his makeshift home—a thin surface of plywood with a sheet for bedding protected from the elements by the cement shell above him. Besides having access to water, there is little else of comfort.

Originally from Kampong Cham, Van came to greater Phnom Penh a year ago with no prior construction skills. Earning $5.75 a day, he has learned how to lay bricks and pour cement under the guidance of his supervisor.

“Now I earn $6.10 a day. The [construction company] allows me to live here until the project is finished. Then I will find another job in the area and another place to live,” he said.

Working up to eight hours a day, six days a week, Van said he makes $120 a month.

“In Phnom Penh [city], the pay is more, but I don’t have the skills to get employed [there],” he said.

Los Lee, the site supervisor said that 20 people live at this construction site—many of which travel to adjacent borey projects to earn extra income.

While not making a daily wage, Lee gets paid by productivity.

“I make $35 for every cubic metre of poured cement. When there are more seasonal workers, I get paid more,” he said. When it comes to safety standards, he said that although the construction company provides safety helmets, workers had to purchase their own gloves and often worked in flip-flops. He noted that due to a lack of oversight, adherence to safety operates on an ad hoc basis.

Sarath, an 18-year-old girl from Prey Veng, travelled down for seasonal work with her 21-year-old brother Pors. As she sat cross-legged while resting against the wall of her hut, she said that as a woman, she could only earn $5 a day to carry bricks.

“I had to come to Phnom Penh for work because my families’ land was flooded and we could not farm. For seasonal work, it is not hard, and the living isn’t so bad,” she said.

Teth Peng, construction manager of Borey New World, said that in general borey developments paid less due to the relatively few skills needed to obtain employment and the lower risk of injury involved, adding that Borey New World along National Road 4 currently employs 500 construction workers who live temporarily in the unfinished buildings.

Peng said, although it is sometimes difficult to maintain a consistent workforce, finding low skilled workers to fill demand relies on having a network of employees.

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Unlike low-rise Borey construction, working on Phnom Penh’s high-rise units is more strenuous and involves more risk. With a lack of government enforced safety standards, Touch Somnang, vice director of the Overseas Cambodia Investment Cooperation (OCIC), which is currently operating 10 construction projects across Phnom Penh and employs thousands of workers, said that while they provide all the necessary safety equipment for their employees, accidents are unavoidable.

“Yes, accidents can happen at any time. Sometimes it is the workers’ fault and sometimes it is the company’s fault. Sometimes workers do not follow what we require them to do or are not accustomed with the equipment,” he said.

Ly Den, a 26-year-old construction worker at Koh Pich, explained that his working conditions are good. He has been supplied with all the necessary safety equipment and says that enforcement of the rules is strict.

“When I climb three metres up from the ground, the managers require me to wear safety belt and provide helmet and gloves,” he said. The company he works for claims that they will pay for the medical costs in case he had an accident he added.

Both Borey New World and OCIC said they pay the medical expenses for injuries.

Den earns $9 per day and is provided free shelter—a green out building next to the looming Diamond Island Riviera project. He explained that the higher wages are worth the risk involved in construction work.  

However, Sok Kean, interim president of The Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia (BWTUC), said that while safety and living standards are determined by each individual developer, with international companies taking a more proactive stance, the main factor that has driven up wages is that workers are leaving Cambodia.

“Employers have to increase wages to attract them to stay,” he said, adding that without the government enforcement of safety regulations, it makes the industry riskier.

“There are 40 people reportedly dying a year in the construction industry,” he said, adding that this figure is probably on low end because not all fatalities are recorded. “[Workers] are risk takers because they just follow each other [from job to job],” he said.
“With the exception of big international construction sites, there is a lack of construction safety standards and most of construction companies do not provide the proper safety equipment for the workers,” he said.

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