​Workers turn backs on jobs | Phnom Penh Post

Workers turn backs on jobs


Publication date
16 January 2009 | 15:02 ICT

Reporter : Sam Rith and Robbie Corey Boulet

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In addition to the many cutbacks caused by the global credit crunch,

more construction workers than ever are quitting their jobs and heading


Photo by:

Sam Rith

Kith Horn quit his job in construction and now sells coconuts on the streets of Phnom Penh. He says he prefers his new job, as it allows him to see his family more often.

ONE-quarter of construction workers who left the industry in 2008 did so voluntarily in response to a pincer-like combination of low pay and unsafe working conditions, an industry official said in a Thursday interview with the Post. Those who have left the ailing sector have found work in informal sectors - such as hawking coconuts from a roadside cart, he added.

While that figure pales in comparison to the percentage of workers who lost their jobs due to the global economic crisis, industry officials and workers say the number of people turning their backs on formerly desirable casual labour in the Kingdom's once-booming building industry is on the rise and points to widespread frustration with the often thankless nature of construction work.  

Ten percent of construction workers nationwide left the industry last year to pursue construction work abroad or to work in other fields, said Sok Sovandeith, president of the Cambodian National Federation of Building and Wood Workers, who added that the total number of workers going into 2009 was still more than 100,000. However, he said, in 2007, only five percent of workers left of their own accord, he said.

Sok Sovandeith could not say definitely what caused the figure to jump, but he speculated that workers had grown tired of waiting for pay to increase and conditions to improve, and reasoned that the economic crisis would hurt their bargaining position with employers.

Sok Sovandeith said the average construction worker earns between US$2.50 and $3 (between 10,000 and 12,000 riels) per day while facing a wide range of safety risks, which he said cause an estimated one fatality and 10 on-the-job injuries each day.  

Eam Sam Oeurn, a 24-year-old construction worker based in Phnom Penh, is among those looking to leave the field. He has worked at construction sites around the city for the past four years and has become discouraged by the low pay. He said, however, that his skill set, which is limited almost exclusively to construction-related work, has limited his job search.  

It is hard and heavy work, especially when There has been rain.

The majority of workers who have left construction and successfully found new jobs had been obliged to gravitate towards unskilled positions such as ice cream and coconut sellers, Sok Sovandeith said.

Construction to coconuts

Kith Horn, a 29-year-old from Takeo province who has worked in the construction industry on a variety of major projects for more than a year, left the sector in 2007 to start a new life as a coconut seller when a brother told him about the potentially lucrative pay. He now spends his days pushing a cart full of coconuts house-by-house, street-by-street, through four different districts in Phnom Penh.

He begins each day at 5am and ends at 3pm, selling roughly 60 coconuts and earning up to $5 on top of what he spends on food to keep him going. When the weather warms up, he expects to sell up to 80 coconuts a day and bring in up to $6 each day.

As a construction worker, he often worked longer hours and received less money - typically between $1.75 and $3 each day - in payments that often came late and sometimes did not come at all.

He said the life of a coconut seller can be physically taxing.

"It requires us to walk a long distance, and we have to use our strength to push the cart," he said.

"It is hard and heavy work, especially when there has been rain and the roads are uneven. If you are lazy, you cannot do this job."

That said, he acknowledged that his new job is much easier than his former one and that the attendant safety risks are not nearly as high. Moreover, he is free to take days off whenever he wants to visit his wife and two children, who remain in Takeo province.  

"Since I started my career as a coconut seller, I often have a chance to go visit my family in Takeo."   

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