The floor collapsed, machines fell and workers screamed.
What began as an ordinary morning at the Nishiku Enterprise garment factory ended in chaos last month when the floor beneath the workers’ feet suddenly gave way.
“I fell down 3 metres; the sewing machine fell on top of me. I didn’t think that I was still alive,” recalled 33-year-old Seang Sophan, still in pain from leg and hand injuries.
In the weeks since the accident at the factory – which has produced garments for major brands New Look and H&M – architects and builders interviewed by the Post have pointed to Cambodia’s near-complete lack of building standards as the likely culprit.
But with hoped-for ASEAN integration looming, a path towards finally obtaining those standards may finally be in sight, according to a UK government-commissioned report obtained last week.
“From discussions with [government adviser] Dr Sok Siphana … a planning and building standards bill will be introduced to the Kingdom’s parliament during 2014, as part of Cambodia’s accession to ASEAN,” the report says.
The report is based on the findings of the UK’s Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), who visited Phnom Penh in March to assess the challenges involved in introducing new standards and to advise Cambodia’s government on its role in ensuring the industry is regulated.
The report highlights “an immediate need to identify and risk assess factories that may be unsafe for use due to failures in fire safety mechanisms and possible structural flaws”.
In the long-term, it says, there is a “need to introduce building standards into the Kingdom and in parallel develop … a building control profession to undertake the compliance checking and enforcement of these standards”.
But this will be no easy task.
Much of Cambodia’s infrastructure had to be redeveloped after the civil war, which the report says “led to a myriad of standards being used by the international investors”.
“However, these standards are not tailored for local conditions,” it says.
The inception of national building standards will take “several years to accomplish and would also require the establishment of testing facilities for materials as well as the training and employment of a cadre of building inspectors,” the report continues.
Other needs identified in the report include new university courses, indemnity insurance and the establishment of a regulatory body.
Siphana could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Kert Sareth, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, confirmed the government was working towards drafting the bill, but could not reveal when it might reach parliament.
The need for such a bill cannot be underestimated, experts say.
Cambodian-based architect Don Rennie said “simple life-safety issues” in the industry are often “just ignored”.
“There is a lack of knowledge, training and experience. There is a lack of enforcement of existing laws,” he said.
In the United States, simply having a degree in architecture “does not make you an architect.… Here, it does”.
Drawing further comparisons, Rennie said the lack of inspections in Cambodia could not be further away from the “police authority” awarded to Los Angeles building inspectors.
This suggests “the value of life here … is very cheap,” he said.
But it is not just the government that has come under fire.
Joel Preston, a consultant at the Community Legal Education Centre, said that while the “number one responsibility rides with the government,” if brands “want to claim they are socially responsible” they, too, should play a role.
Building safety is “a massive concern for us because of the increasing prevalence of these incidents,” he said, adding that without reform, collapses could become a “continuing trend”.
The RICS assessment was spurred by the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, which left more than 1,100 people dead and thousands wounded.
Following the disaster, Cambodia’s own thriving garment sector was touted as a “cleaner” alternative for brands.
But while Cambodia’s mainly one- and two-storey factories reduce the risk of structural failure – unlike Bangladesh – experts say the complete lack of standards leaves the Kingdom’s workers unprotected. And failure to reform could cost the country money, through the “withdrawal of existing business”, according to RICS.
In May 2013, less than one month after the Rana Plaza tragedy, a mezzanine constructed without authorisation collapsed at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kampong Speu province, crushing two workers to death.
Korn Vet, the father of teenage victim Kim Dany, who had been working at the factory for just two weeks prior to the collapse, said that he had never considered that the building his daughter was working in might be unsafe.
“I am still in shock,” he said.
Vet said that concern about building safety has driven his three other daughters out of Cambodia’s largest export sector and into farming. Until proper standards are introduced, he said, he and his family will not trust factory work.
“Workers’ safety should come first.… We do not want to see another accident when they have happened already; the government must start to take action,” he added.
On the day of the accident at the Nishiku Enterprise factory, a company director said the floor that collapsed, built over a 40-by-20-metre reservoir, had not been reinforced.
The factory and those who built it have thus far faced no legal action over allegations of possible negligence.
Now back at work but in a different building at the large complex, Sophan said she is afraid of disaster striking again.
“I am worried that the factory still allows other workers to work in the old building,” she said. “I will not return to work in the old building if the factory is not built to a standard that will ensure our safety.”