Four employees suffered back and leg injuries after part of the floor collapsed at a Takeo province garment factory yesterday morning.
Authorities blamed the incident – the latest to raise questions about building safety in Cambodia’s biggest export industry – on substandard construction.
Some 800 workers fled from Building B of the Nishiku Enterprise factory at about 9:30am after part of the ground floor near the entrance caved in, pinning several workers under their sewing machines and causing minor injuries, witnesses said.
“According to a primary investigation, it was caused by substandard construction,” said Som Hor, deputy chief of a military police unit in Bati district’s Putsar commune. “We have asked investigating officers to check the construction again, because the company did not follow the blueprints they submitted.”
A portion of the floor, below eight work stations, collapsed due to a lack of reinforcement in its foundation. It sat atop a 40-by-20-metre reservoir dug underneath and gave way under the factory’s weight, said Chan Monika director of Nishiku’s human resources.
While about 150 people stood outside Nishiku’s large gates after workers left the factory, the floor of the building slanted about 1 metre underground, with portions of the ceiling downed, wires and hunks of insulation hanging from above.
Recounting the incident two hours later, Khat Sorya said she fell down after the floor collapsed while she was retrieving a pair of scissors for a co-worker.
“I heard a sound, and I ran back, but the concrete I was standing on collapsed and I fell with machines,” Sorya said. “Luckily I was not injured; I tried to crawl out of the debris.”
At Bati Referral Hospital, four injured women and two who fainted in shock rested on wood-framed beds with no mattresses set up outside the hospital.
Oeur Pich, whose left leg was injured, said that when the floor fell, she first struggled to climb up amid dust and rubble, but then tried to help other workers stuck under machines. The industrial appliances were too heavy for her to lift on her own, so she shouted until other workers came back to help.
“As soon as I heard a sound, the machines and workers collapsed [with the floor]; I am extremely shocked, but luckily nobody was killed,” she said. “I will continue to work at [Nishiku] – even though I am afraid – because I have no choice.”
Nishiku supplies to UK-based New Look, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) said. It also supplies to H&M, according to the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Worker Democratic Union (C.CAWDU).
An H&M spokeswoman said yesterday that “local staff in Cambodia is currently investigating this case, and we cannot comment further at this point”. New Look did not respond to an email.
The collapse shows that more attention must be paid to building safety at garment factories, Dave Welsh, country director of labour rights group Solidarity Center, said at the hospital.
“It just speaks to the fact that structural integrity should be a priority,” he said.
Responsibility for inspections falls on the Ministry of Labour, said Moen Tola, head of the labour program at CLEC. Monthly safety inspections, by law, are supposed to be carried out.
In the wake of the Wing Star Shoes factory collapse that killed two workers, including a 13-year-old girl, in Kampong Speu in May last year, Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng, then the social affairs minister, promised swift action.
“We will create an inspection committee to investigate all the factories in this country,” he said.
But Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour last night said that following the Wing Star collapse, a new committee had instead been set up by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction to carry out surprise inspections on building conditions and fire safety.
Sun Lyhov of C.CAWDU, however, said the government has little control over what is being built. “They have no control over the quality of buildings,” Lyhov said. The union is considering a lawsuit against the factory, he added, because yesterday’s incident is not the factory’s first infraction.
In separate incidents in the garment sector since the Wing Star collapse, workers have been injured when a walkway collapsed into a pond at a factory in the capital’s Meanchey district, and authorities have discovered an entire storey built at a factory without permission.
Yesterday’s collapse coincided with the release of the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program’s third transparency report.
The report documents factories’ compliance with “critical issues” relating to workers’ rights, health and safety.
Nishiku, previously called Asia Dragon Garment, is listed as compliant with all 20 applicable critical issues.
But Jill Tucker, BFC chief technical adviser, said that structural assessments were not something the group was capable of doing.
“In order to do a real structural assessment you need qualified structural engineers; we do not have any on staff,” she said. “I don’t think that we will ever become engineers; it’s not our role. But we need to make sure that others are looking into this.”
Tucker said the ILO invited a team of experts from Filipino company ECCI on a 10-day trip to Cambodia in June to assess the building and fire safety of a “sample” of factories.
“They could only go to 10 factories out of 500 … [so] they tried to get coverage of different types of factories,” she said, adding that the experts met with representatives of GMAC, the Labour Ministry and the Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Ministry.
Based on ECCI’s findings, which BFC received yesterday, the group would be “making recommendations”, Tucker said.
Nishiku was not one of the factories selected for assessment.
In the future, Tucker added, the structural integrity of factories is “definitely an issue we need to address … [but] it is not something we can do alone.”
According to the transparency report, other “critical issues” are lessening since the program began publicly shaming factories.
In its report, the BFC noted a “19 per cent improvement in the requirement to hold regular evacuation drills” and an “8 per cent improvement in the requirement to ensure that workers are free from discrimination” since it first began naming problem factories last year.
Out of the 13 factories originally included in the “low compliance” list, two have gotten their act together in recent months, the report says.
“One-fourth of the 95 factories added to the Critical Issues list in this report made improvements … in anticipation of their inclusion”, it says. “The total number of Critical Issues violations in this group of factories fell from 109 to 75 between July and September.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY