Twenty-three garment workers, one of them a pregnant woman, were taken to hospital yesterday after a kiosk and a connecting concrete walkway at Top World Garment factory in the capital collapsed into a pond – days after two workers were crushed to death in a footwear factory in Kampong Speu province.
Workers said the 30-metre-long structure, comprising a concrete platform and iron roof, fell into the rubbish-filled water as they ate lunch shortly after 11:30am.
“I was standing on the end of the kiosk,” factory employee In Srey Nin, 30, said. “Five other people and myself helped pull a pregnant woman from the water.”
That woman was Khem Rany, 27, who said she was eating lunch as usual at the factory, in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, when the kiosk began crumbling beneath her.
“We don’t know what happened,” she said. “The construction collapsed into the water. I was afraid something would happen to my baby. I cannot swim.”
Rany was rescued and was among 23 workers taken to Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital or Meanchey District Hospital. All escaped serious injury.
In a scene eerily familiar to last Thursday’s ceiling collapse that killed two young workers at Wing Star Shoes – a supplier to Asics – police and members of the prime minister’s Bodyguard Unit spent hours trawling through the rubble for casualties.
Bare-chested men dived into the swampy waters, and heavy machinery slowly lifted remnants of the bridge from the muck.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann said that even hours after the collapse, police did not know if everyone was accounted for, because they had not been able to obtain a list of workers from the factory’s management.
“Actually, we suggested everyone go back to work so [their bosses] could count workers to determine how many were missing,” he said. “Our request was ignored and workers just panicked and gathered right near us.”
Officers from the Bodyguard Unit watched as hundreds of workers from the neighbouring Kbal Koh factory also congregated alongside the pond, metres from where the heavy machinery was lifting out parts of the bridge.
Multiple times, the crane and excavator operators paused to wait for officials to tell workers to step back for their own safety.
Koch Ousaphea, director of administration at Top World, a Chinese-owned factory that employs about 800 workers, said the injuries caused to workers were “not serious”.
“They just scratched their legs and hands a bit,” he said. “I have no information about how many workers are missing, because no one has come forward to say their relatives are lost.”
Speaking from a hospital bed, Thoung Ra, 35, who has worked at the factory for 10 years, said workers regularly ate lunch in the kiosk.
“I hurt my back so much when I fell into the water,” she said. “Wood and metal fell down on us, but luckily the water helped us.”
Dave Welsh, American Center for International Labor Solidarity country manager, said workers and the factory were lucky the incident wasn’t much worse.
“What does it take for widespread reform? I’m not sure we need any more indications that there must be dramatic improvements,” he said.
“This was a canteen area. What doesn’t bear thinking is that that they were trying to use this as a . . . day-care area and didn’t get approval because there was water around.”
Welsh again took aim at Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo’s claim that last week’s deadly collapse was a “one-off accident”.
A recent ILO report showed a quarter of garment and footwear factories surveyed were found to have industrial hazards, Welsh said.
Loo maintained last night that the Wing Star building collapse was a one-off.
“It was. Factories and structures along the river – are they related?” he said. “I don’t think you can link the incident at Wing Star with this. We’ve heard of water washing away structures built on water before.”
If the company was responsible, it would not “run away”, but people should not blame factories before knowing the cause of the collapse, Loo said.
“We have to take it case by case about whether the factory has been negligent. We have to be reasonable.”
Loo said it was hard for factory management to control workers after something like this happened.
“Procedures exist, but workers panic and don’t follow them,” he said.
Sovann, the police chief, said it did not appear that the kiosk and bridge had been illegally constructed or had breached any safety standards.
“This kiosk was not the type of construction that [they] needed permission to build. It was just a place for workers to relax,” he said.
Two more structures similar to the kiosk sit atop water on the grounds of Top World.
Top World made headlines in October when then-manager Wang Zia Chao tore up photos of King Father Sihanouk, who had died days earlier. She was slapped with a suspended prison term within 36 hours and deported back to China.
Additional reporting by Sen David