Waiting to take the plunge back to work under a city street.
YOU probably haven't seen him and you certainly would not want to swap jobs, but
every day 33-year-old Chun Saroeurn and his colleagues meet up to clean the city's
underground stormwater drains.
It is a job they do by hand and without any protective gear. In return they expect
to save some riel to take back home.
Between the cooler hours of the early morning until noon, Saroeurn crawls along the
city's drainage pipes. His job is to dig up what is euphemistically referred to as
'mixed waste', which translates as everything from human excrement to broken bottles
and metal bars. Lurking unhidden in the midst of this filth is the constant danger
The narrow diameter - around 0.6 meters - means the men usually strip down to their
underwear. Nineteen-year-old Yim Veng's ambition is to work as many hours as possible:
the more he works, the more he earns.
"I have no timetable at work," he says, "My working hours depend entirely
on my health. When I feel strong, I work the whole day."
The pipes they clean are, strictly speaking, stormwater drains. However, the fact
that many septic tanks - the main method of sewage management here - overflow, combined
with the lack of sanitation in squatter camps, makes this distinction less important.
Both Saroeurn and Veng say that their first week was most difficult. It took time
to get used to the overpowering stench, the skin rashes and itches that characterize
"After one week my nose and skin became accustomed to the sewage and I started
to really enjoy my job," said Veng. "Now there is no problem - I love the
waste." In fact, Veng is so happy in his work, he told the Post, that he has
never thought to change it and would be happy doing this for the rest of his life.
However, the health problems that dog sewage workers mean that Veng and his colleagues
run a higher chance than most of contracting life-threatening diseases.
Nouv Saroeun, chief of drainage and sewage for the city's council, estimates that
20-30 percent of workers get infected each year with diseases that strike their lungs
or liver. Disease kills between five and seven workers annually. And, he adds, there
is no system to follow up the health condition of workers once they quit.
"Neither the public nor the country's health officials are interested in this
issue," he says. "Those workers that fall ill have to use whatever money
they have saved to pay for their own treatment. That makes life for them very difficult."
Exactly what those dangers are is a matter of conjecture. Chren Sokha, head of the
Water and Soil Quality Management Department in the Ministry of Environment, told
the Post that no research has been carried out in Cambodia on the chemical makeup
of the flow through the city's drains. Research from other countries shows high levels
of phosphates and nitrogen.
Asked about the lack of protective gear, the council's Nouv Saroeun says he is concerned
about diseases afflicting the workers, but says the city simply does not have appropriate
The daily grime
"We had some equipment which remained from the communist regime, but we cannot
use it here because the diameter of our pipes is too narrow," he says. "[The
Soviets] used this gear for walking underground, but we have to crawl."
Pich Joy is the 55-year-old leader of one team. He says that most of his 30 staff
are victims of the flooding that struck the rural areas earlier this year. The loss
of their rice crops left them little choice.
"They came to Phnom Penh to make some money to support their families in the
provinces, but they are unskilled. Their only choice is to do the jobs that other
people hate such as sewage," says Joy. "Many people would not do this job,
but we love it."
Joy explains that the cleaners are only needed for a few months. Once all the pipes
are cleaned, the workers will be out of a job. The 30 workers in his team are related
- cousins, nephews and even his children.
Saroeurn says they have all come from Preah Sdech district in Prey Veng province,
which suffers flooding for two or three months a year. He is aware that most people
frown on this sort of work.
"This job is not for everyone," says Saroeurn. "It involves dealing
with mixed waste from houses, restaurants and hospitals and many other places. This
work is only for the poor like us. Sometimes I end up swallowing some of it, but
so far that hasn't been a problem."
For their troubles the workers earn around 6,000 riel ($1.50) for each meter cleaned,
which means a good worker can earn 15,000 riel a day. Earning the money, though,
is not the same as getting paid - Joy says that the government owes sewage workers
around 10 million riel, a debt officials told him they cannot yet pay.
"We expect to save some money and go back home to start growing rice again,
but we have to wait to get paid. Until then we will work until all the drainage systems
in the city are unblocked."