THE most vulnerable of Phnom Penh's poor were hardest hit by last July's double blow
of political turmoil and regional economic meltdown.
And their suffering is getting worse, according to a recent survey by the Cambodia
Development Resource Institute (CDRI).
The survey of 80 porters, cyclo drivers, small vegetable traders and scavengers who
pick through the capital's rubbish found their incomes were sinking, while the cost
of living was rising.
The cyclo drivers said their average daily income dropped to 7,000 riel in May, down
from 9,100 riel in January. In July 1997, their average daily income was 12,250 riel.
While their income was going down, so too was the value of the riel against the dollar,
which reduced their buying power still further. In July 1997, a cyclo driver was
averaging about $5 a day. In May, they earned less than $2. At the same time food
prices - especially rice - were soaring.
Workers in the other three categories were in similar straits: porters made 5,415
riel per day, down from 9,675 riel; traders made 3,400 riel per day, down from 7,050
riel; and scavengers made an average 3,040 riel a day, down from 4,155 riel.
While the figures make disturbing reading, the CDRI researchers found that even worse
was the amount of harassment vulnerable workers were finding at the hands of officials
"For instance, since the number of porters, particularly market porters, has
increased, there is insufficient accommodation for them, so some have to sleep in
the street," the CDRI report states. "They are targeted as potential troublemakers
by the police and arrested or fined.
"Similarly, ferry porters report that they have to pay half of their daily gross
earnings to the captain of workers at the ferry headquarters, and cyclo drivers and
vegetable traders are constantly chased from their places of business by police and
Most of the porters and cyclo drivers were male and had come from rural areas to
Phnom Penh to make some money. Ninety-five percent of cyclo drivers had some education;
85% of the porters said they were educated.
In contrast two-thirds of the traders (all female), and all of the scavengers (70%
of them female), were permanent residents in the capital. In both cases, only 40%
said they had been to school.
Cyclo drivers said their situation had deteriorated because there were fewer foreigners
and tourists around town and there was even more competition from the faster and
The CDRI researchers said that some traders were being forced to sell vegetables
for less than what they paid for them, just to get some money for the next day's
Still more people were being forced to live around the rubbish dump in Stung Meanchey,
- at a time when the amount of "salable rubbish" being dumped there had
Many scavengers, the researchers said, could not afford the 10,000 riel per month
bribe they had to pay to be allowed to sift through the truck loads of newly-dumped
"As a result of all these trends, vulnerable workers' debts to money-lenders
are increasing, their food consumption is declining and (in the case of 31%) they
are buying their food on credit," the report states.