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Anniversary marked by inaction

Rescue workers search through rubble for survivors at the Wing Star shoe factory in Kampong Speu province
Rescue workers search through rubble for survivors at the Wing Star shoe factory in Kampong Speu province in May. Pha Lina

Anniversary marked by inaction

Six months after two of her co-workers were crushed to death when a storage level collapsed at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kampong Speu, employee Yu Manith is noticing the cracks in a factory wall beginning to expand.

“When we told the company, they said they would repair them when they get bigger,” said the 31-year-old, who makes shoes for Japanese brand Asics.

Tomorrow marks six months since a mezzanine storage level – built without approval – collapsed, killing teenager Kim Dany and Rim Roeun, 22.

Shortly after police rummaged through the debris for survivors, authorities vowed to introduce widespread safety reforms to clean up Cambodia’s biggest export industry.

“We will create an inspection committee to investigate all the factories in this country,” said Ith Sam Heng, then minister of social affairs. “The inspection committee will have [inspections every] month, three months and in special cases.”

Six months on, those promises are yet to be fulfilled and many of Cambodia’s factories remain unsafe, labour-rights groups and unions say.

“The government is not developing any new systems,” said Kong Athit, secretary general of the independent Cambodian Labour Confederation. “[Companies are] using old and unsafe buildings. The government has no control over it because they have no records of it.”

Dave Welsh, country manager of labour-rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS, said it is only “through fortune” that similar workplace accidents to the Wing Star collapse have not occurred since.

“Perhaps these committees are private, but I’ve seen no evidence of more inspections,” he said.

The second part of Sam Heng’s promise in May – to hold those responsible for the collapse to account – had come to nothing, Welsh added.

“As far as [putting] liability on a factory in a criminal context, there’s been no progress.”

Likewise, he added, the construction company that had built the storage level has not been publicly named, much less punished.

“Surely the criminal liability lies somewhere. It doesn’t have to be isolated to one party.”

The cracks in the wall might be getting bigger, but worker Manith said yesterday that safety has improved at Wing Star.

“It is better than it was before,” she said, adding that management now took a much more serious approach to electrical wiring and fire safety. “I don’t want to see any workers injured while working. Every factory, not just Wing Star, has to make workers’ safety the priority.”

Mao Sisong, administrative manager at Wing Star, said his company has improved safety significantly since the collapse, but declined a request for Post reporters to visit the factory this week.

“Our company has made repairs and changed a lot … we do not allow workers into that area, and we demolished the ceiling in order to make everything safe,” he said. “You can come and check after the Water Festival.

“We made other changes in the workplace and the [International Labour Organization] went down to check as well.”

Government officials, however, have not visited the factory in the past six months, he added.

A press contact at Better Factories Cambodia, the ILO arm that oversees inspections, was unable to be reached.

Ken Loo, Garment Manufacturers in Cambodia secretary-general, said he was not aware if inspections have increased since May.

Since the Wing Star collapse, Loo added, his association had advised its members to conduct structural assessments of their factories.

“The assessments went to show that generally the structures were no problem,” he said.

Sam Heng and a number of other officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Labour could not be reached.

Welsh, from ACILS, said Sam Heng’s recent switch from his role as minister of Social Affairs to minister of Labour meant he was now in a better position to implement the changes he had promised.

It’s such leadership, CLC’s Athit said, that can prevent similar tragedies and, in turn, avoid huge economic losses.

“They need a special committee … for reports on all buildings and to make sure workers are protected,” he said. “They should not wait for more people to die.”

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