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Will work for cheap: The day laborers of Phnom Penh

Will work for cheap: The day laborers of Phnom Penh

You Rin and one-year-old daughter Khuong Sarie with other workers in the dusty gloom of a cement warehouse behind the Phnom Penh railway station.

Every morning men and women from the countryside line the streets of Phnom Penh

in the hope of finding some temporary paid employment. LON NARA takes a look

at the lives of the city's day laborers and the price they pay for their poverty.

Every day in the soft pre-dawn light, 40 year-old Khieu Sopheak joins dozens of other

tired, hungry people converging from neighboring wats and parks where they sleep

to sell their labor in order to make a few riels.

Equipped with hoes and bamboo baskets, they squat along the curb north and south

of the Independence Monument on Sihanouk Boulevard - mindful of police regulations

that forbid them to sit - and hope that a job opportunity turns up.

As a man stops his motorbike near the group, a throng of laborers rushes to enquire

about potential employment. For the second time since his arrival from his village

of Prey Prohma in Svay Rieng 10 days ago, Sopheak gets lucky: the promise of 7000

riels to fill a house foundation with soil in Chhbar Ampov.

For the past eight years, Sopheak, like thousands of other rural farmers, has made

seasonal migrations to Phnom Penh to earn money to support his family between harvests.

Starting as a cyclo driver in 1993, Sopheak later moved on to construction work until

settling on the more unpredictable returns of a freelance day laborer in 1997.

Sopheak, like a large segment of the 85% of the Cambodian population who eke out

their existence on family farms in the countryside, says the yield from his rice

paddies is insufficient to feed and educate his five children. To make up for the

shortfall in his income, he stays in his village only for planting and harvesting

seasons, spending the remaining 10 months of the year in Phnom Penh.

"I must go back home each month with at least 30,000 riels for my wife and children,"

Sopheak said. "I cannot go home without the money."

The seasonal influx of farmers to urban areas in search of temporary employment has

long been a factor of Cambodia's economy, says Seng Soeun, Deputy Director of the

National Institute of Statistics.

"These [rural] people aged from 20-35 years old come to work in the city after

harvest season because it's better than doing nothing in their villages for six months,"

Soeun said.

But Sok Hach, economist at the Cambodian Development Resource Institute, says poor

economic conditions are causing the numbers of migrant day laborers to flock to Phnom

Penh in search of work to reach a record high.

"This is a new trend," Hach said of the expansion in the city's day laborer

ranks. "Many [more] farmers come to look for jobs in the city."

Hach blamed a rise in rice paddy production costs that outweigh the sale price for

the increased desperation of rural breadwinners.

Another factor in the increasing numbers of day laborers lining the Phnom Penh curbs

is the lingering influence of last year's disastrous flooding.

Hang Khan's home village of Pun in Prey Veng offers a sobering indicator on the impoverishment

and social disruption wrought by the floods of 2000.

According to Khan, 302 of Pun's 360 families have migrated to Phnom Penh this year

due to a simple lack of food. And while Khan, 28, has sought temporary construction

work in Phnom Penh between harvests, this year he is considering abandoning his farm

completely because his family's rice yields are not enough to feed the family.

But life is far from easy for day laborers seeking to make a living in the city.

Huddled in uneasy groups near the Independence Monument or in the park next to Psah

Deum Kor, their trappings of hoes, baskets and mosquito nets clearly identify them

as outsiders and heighten their vulnerability.

Unwanted attention from police, who prohibit them from sitting in the park and arbitrarily

evict them due to alleged security concerns plus the sensitivities of passing foreign

delegations, are routine.

"Life in the city and the country is completely different," Sopheak said

of the culture shock that rural day laborers are faced with upon arriving in the


"The [city] people speak with different tones. They use their brain whereas

we use our emotions and instincts, so our living standards will never get better."

Workers pull electric cable along a trench beside Route 6a.

Youk Len, who has worked seasonally as a porter at Psar Deum Kor market since the

1993 UNTAC-sponsored elections, is an example of how fragile the dreams of a better

life in the city can be.

A native of Chbak village, Svay Chrum district, Svay Rieng, Len says his daily earnings

of about 3000 riels make it almost impossible to save any money. Moreover, he claims

to be 130,000 riels in debt to a money lender and after six months of paying an usurious

40% interest on the loan, Len doubts he will ever be solvent again.

"I pay the money lender the interest when I go back home, but I can't repay

the loan due to the high interest rate," Len said. "I borrowed more money

to afford the taxi fare to come back to Phnom Penh."

But in comparison to the plight of some of his friends, Len considers himself one

of the lucky ones.

Len recounts the tale of a friend from his home district who returned home after

several months of work in Phnom Penh with HIV/AIDS. The friend transmitted the disease

to his wife and the couple died of AIDS in 1999.

That same year, five of his friends were electrocuted in a freak accident at Parkway

Square on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard where they'd been hired to move a generator that

had not been electrically grounded.

The tragic and dangerous nature of life as a day laborer is exemplified by the experiences

of You Rin, 38, and her husband, natives of Prey Veng's Balang village.

Trapped in debt, Rin says they will lose their farm because they are unable to repay

a $60 loan for which they mortgaged their land after last year's flooding.

Rin and her husband now work with 100 fellow day laborers at a cement warehouse behind

the Phnom Penh railway station.

The heavy lifting in an enclosed area thick with cement dust has wreaked havoc on

the health of Rin and her family.

"I have a cough and have become weaker and when I spit there is cement dust

in the sputum...my husband now tires very quickly while working," she said during

a brief break from hauling 50 kilogram sacks of cement between waiting trucks and

the warehouse.

More worringly, her one year-old daughter - like most of the children who accompany

their parents to work in the warehouse - has developed a painful skin condition Rin

blames on the cement dust.

For all this, Rin and her husband earn around 8000 riels each day between them.

"When there are more cement trucks coming in, we work harder so we can earn

more money," Rin said. "If we refuse to work overtime, our jobs will be

suspended for at least one week."

Rin is rapidly losing hope for her and her family's future.

"Life is very difficult. We cannot move forward nor backward," she said

of a life trapped between crushing debt and debilitating labor. "But what could

we tell the money lender and what will we do? We would rather live here and work

in the cement warehouse."


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