Left with few if any options to support her children after the passing of her husband – the family’s sole breadwinner – Nou Pheap took up construction work, a labour-intensive, low-paying job for unskilled workers like herself.

While some unionists claim that female workers in the sector are being exploited for their labour, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training says that many of them are paid less than their male colleagues due largely to a lack of experience or a perceived lack of physical strength.

Approximately 35 per cent of Cambodia’s 250,000 construction workers are women, according to Sok Kin, president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC).

Although the work is sometimes seen as difficult, many women like Pheap find that a lack of education leaves them with few other employment options.

Hailing from Prey Veng province’s Kanh Chriech district, Pheap has been working on construction sites ever since she was widowed, around a decade ago. Then, she took the only work available to her in order to feed her children, one of whom has now joined her in construction.

Currently working on a construction site in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, the 46-year-old mother, who mixes concrete and delivers it by handcart – earns just 22,000 riel ($5.50) each day while her 20-year-old son is paid 35,000 riel ($9.25) a day as a bricklayer.

She tells The Post how her limited income means she needs to save up by sleeping at the construction site, but still finds herself short of money at times.

“My daily wage is sometimes not enough to support my family, because I must pay for rice, food and other expenses. Sometimes I borrow money at a high interest rate to pay for necessities and then repay it when I get my wages,” she explains.

In similar circumstances is Chuon Phari, currently a construction worker on a site in the capital’s Daun Penh district.

Phari says she works eight hours a day, just as the men on the site do, but is paid just 25,000 riel ($6.25) a day. She does not believe that her labour is worth so little, but does not know what else she can do.

“Maybe it is because I am unskilled. I know that if I was trained in a specific vocation, I could earn more, but I still think my wages are too low,” says the 30-year-old.

Unfair or unskilled?

BWTUC president Kin, citing reports he has seen, tells The Post that the Kingdom currently has around 250,000 construction workers, between 30 and 35 per cent of them women.

He is of the view that many women in the sector are being exploited for their labour.

“When it comes to working conditions for women, I think there are still abuses taking place, which is to say that men and women do not enjoy equal rights in the construction sector. The law states that men and women are entitled to the same rights and benefits, but the reality is that women are not paid as well,” he says.

Kin offered an example, saying that women mixing concrete cement for the same eight-hour day as their male co-workers earn between 20,000 and 30,000 riel a day, while men working the same shift can expect to make from 30,000 to 50,000 riel a day.

He noted that many construction supervisors or managers do not offer opportunities for advancement or promotion to women, generally because they do not believe that women can work as well as men.

He believes that in general, women construction workers work as hard as their male colleagues, and some even harder.

The BWTUC, he said, has made specific proposals to several relevant institutions, urging them to ensure that women receive equal rights and benefits as men. 

Kata Orn, labour ministry secretary of state and spokesperson, tells The Post that the majority of female construction workers are paid less than men because of their lack of skills. 

He explains that there is no minimum wage in the construction sector as yet, and that there are two factors as to why women generally receive lower wages.

One is because women are perceived as being weaker than men, and the other is because the majority of women construction workers have no formal training.

“The labour ministry calls on young people and those who are unskilled to register for technical vocational training, so they can apply for better paid work,” he said, while also urging all contractors, employers and workers themselves to respect the Kingdom’s labour laws.