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Caught between rubble and a hard place

Many of Phnom Penh’s 100,000 domestic construction workers live on-site, like Soth Tha’s family.
Many of Phnom Penh’s 100,000 domestic construction workers live on-site, like Soth Tha’s family. Hong Menea

Caught between rubble and a hard place

Soth Tha and his wife, Dus San, wake up every day before dawn in a tent fashioned out of green tarpaulin and a few metal poles. The construction workers are never late to work. Like many, they live on-site.

Tha and San are two of dozens of Cambodian workers building a 25-storey luxury condominium just a stone’s throw from Tuol Tompoung market. They moved to the capital 10 months ago, leaving behind two young sons in Prey Veng province to stay in school.

The parents see their two older sons, who work at a bakery in Tuol Kork, but San is constantly worried about the the ones back home, who come to visit when they can, like this week.

“Whenever we call them, we cry because they are young and have to cook for themselves,” she said. The decision to split up the family wasn’t an easy one, but one born out of desperation.

Like many working in construction, San has to pay off a debt accrued back home in the countryside. It’s a debt that isn’t even hers. “We were cheated by my wife’s brother, who asked us to borrow money for him from the bank. He ran away,” Tha explains.

San’s brother ran a bakery in Phnom Penh, and asked her to co-sign a $5,000 loan two years ago. Three months later, he sold the bakery and disappeared. “We are not happy to live and work here, but we have no choice,” Tha says. “We have to pay the bank.”

In his makeshift home, the only thing that separates Tha from the gravel that litters the floor are a few planks of wood that he and his wife use as a bed.

Dus San came to the capital seeking construction work in order to repay a mounting debt owed to the bank.
Dus San came to the capital seeking construction work in order to repay a mounting debt owed to the bank. Hong Menea

On the other side

Living on-site is an experience common to many of the capital’s 100,000 Cambodian construction workers.

But not all of those working in the capital’s booming property market are locals. On most international projects, skilled Chinese and Vietnamese nationals work side by side with Cambodians.

While the tasks performed by foreign construction workers and their Cambodian counterparts are much the same, their experiences are distinct, with each shouldering their own hardships.

By the time Tha and San clock in at 7am, Chinese national Cai Sheng Jie has already put in an hour’s work at one of the many Chinese-run construction sites peppered around Phnom Penh.

The tattooed Sheng Jie, 29, moved to Phnom Penh in August with a Chinese subcontractor to work on a large residential and commercial real estate project in Chamkarmon district.

Each morning he wakes at 5, eats a $1 breakfast at 5:30, leaves his residence and walks across the street to start another day of laying floor slabs.

Sheng Jie lives in dormitory-style, pre-fabricated housing. Rows of the matchbox-style structures lined with tiny windows are a hallmark of foreign-run construction sites.

The Chinese worker says the large room he lives in is enough for his eight roommates. “Yes, they are boxes. But they are actually comfortable. There is everything we need,” he says.

On-site, Cambodian families live side by side.
On-site, Cambodian families live side by side. Hong Menea

While the company provides them with the “box” and a blanket, they have to use spare wood to make their beds. For the first four hours of his shift, Sheng Jie says he looks forward to the best part of his job: the three-hour lunch break.

“I like it here, because when I work here I get to nap every day for up to two hours,” he says gleefully.

But that’s not the only reason for the toothy smile on his face. It is also the only time he gets to talk to his 5-year-old-son, the primary motivation for the gruelling work, he says.

“I have to tell you that I especially miss him,” Sheng Jie says. “After I clock out, I eat my meal, take a shower and immediately call him.”

Treated like ‘animals’

The construction sector has become one of the fastest growth engines of Cambodia’s fledgling economy over the past three years. Worksites with towering cranes have mushroomed in Phnom Penh, with residents unable to escape the steady din of jackhammers.

The rapid pace of on-paper investments in the sector has seen it outpace traditional moneymakers for the Kingdom, like tourism and agriculture. As of May this year, investments in the construction sector were estimated at $6.5 billion. In 2015, investments reached just $3.3 billion in total.

Records from the Ministry of Land Management show more than 200,000 Cambodian workers employed in the sector, with half of those in Phnom Penh. While wages vary based on skill level, those at the lower end receive about $6 a day, earnings only slightly better than that of Cambodia’s garment and footwear workers.

Foreign workers walk to work from pre-fab housing.
Foreign workers walk to work from pre-fab housing. Hong Menea

Tha and San make about $240 and $160 a month, respectively. But given his better skill profile and status as a foreign worker, Sheng Jie gets around $1,000 monthly with a $300 allowance.

There are many factors pushing Cambodians into the construction workforce despite the meagre wages, says Moeun Tola, director of labour rights group Central. The garment sector prefers women; debts are rising; and job opportunities in the provinces are few.

He says that many local workers come into the workforce relatively raw, but if firms invest in on-the-job training, Cambodians can perform better than their foreign coworkers.

But many are still treated like “animals”, Tola says, and live in squalid conditions. They are rarely given the option of staying in housing arranged by the company. So they set up their shack-like structures on-site, where access to running water is limited. The sites are rarely secure, endangering female workers especially, he says.

“Cambodian workers are always looked at as labourers and not skilled,” Tola says. “Their working and living conditions are completely different from Chinese and Vietnamese workers.”

Even at work, they have little protection. Despite having nearly a third of the number of employees in the garment industry, the construction sector has abysmally low worker representation.

The country’s 750,000 garment and footwear workers have more than 3,000 unions acting on their behalf. Construction workers have less than a handful.

“I think there are only four construction worker unions registered with the Ministry of Labour,” says Sok Kin, deputy president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia.

He says that the dearth of adequate representation and regulatory oversight had led to workers being underpaid or cheated of their salaries, a lack of safety equipment and no social security net.

Tha’s family has cut back on meals to save money.
Tha’s family has cut back on meals to save money. Hong Menea

“We have had to create our own policies and inform the workers,” says Kin. “It still isn’t enough, because we don’t have enough members to spread the word.”

Working in the capital’s booming construction trade was not Tha and San’s first choice. Like many in the provinces, Tha first tried his luck across the border when a recruiter snuck him into Thailand to work for a Bangkok construction firm. San soon followed.

The daily 350 baht (about $10) that Tha earned in Thailand was far more than he could have made back in Prey Veng. But he had to share a stuffy room with other Cambodian workers, and San fell ill. They returned. Faced with ballooning debt, San made the decision to venture to Phnom Penh with Tha.

“I was not going to stay home without helping to earn money for our family, so I came with my husband,” San said.

Their plight is common. In May, the Cambodian Microfinance Association reported nearly $3 billion worth of outstanding micro-loans in Cambodia, with the average loan size about $1,400.

By the time San and Tha moved to the capital, they owed nearly $7,000, including interest.

Paying back the loan has come with sacrifices. Meals consist of the basics – rice and vegetable soup. Trips home are rare, and even the small pleasures of a beer after work had to be halted.

“We cannot have fun like other young workers, because we have to save the money,” San says.

The skill gap

Sitting in a local Chinese eatery near Koh Pich, Sheng Jie explains that uneducated workers have only two career choices in China: agriculture and construction. “And farming is just not my thing,” he says.

Having worked in the sector for 10 years, he didn’t hesitate to move to Cambodia when his firm was contracted to provide skilled workers.

“Honestly, when you are working for a firm and they have a new project, it is not nice to not go with them,” Sheng Jie says. “For us Chinese, we value trust and loyalty the most.”

Chinese-run sites like Sino Great Wall are peppered around Phnom Penh.
Chinese-run sites like Sino Great Wall are peppered around Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Speaking with Sheng Jie, a tension between foreign workers and Cambodians becomes evident. He says he sees that sort of motivation and loyalty somewhat lacking in his domestic coworkers. “If you’re talking about local Cambodian workers, yes, their conditions are definitely worse than ours,” he says. “But that is because they are not as hard working as us.”

Sheng Jie says that there are opportunities for his Cambodian coworkers to learn on the job and pick up new skills, but there is a lack of interest. Tha disagrees. If local workers were provided training on how to use heavy equipment and machinery, they could be equally productive, he says.

But San adds that even if workers wanted to push for better working and living conditions, there is almost no help for them, and no unions. “We don’t see any union coming to help us with anything,” she says.

In their tiny home, Tha’s 10-year-old son, Reaksmey, plays with a toy motorcycle. Tha says he worries about his safety at the construction site, as well as when he is back in Prey Veng.

“I am concerned about him, because there is no one to watch over him,” he says. “I am afraid he will fall down or something will smash him.”

Desperate to get out of their predicament, Tha estimates that he and San can save enough money over the next year to be debt-free. But there is doubt written all over their faces.

“If we get a small piece of land for farming, the income will not be comparable, but at least we can live as a family together,” Tha says. “But who knows if we will ever be able to go back home.”

San cuts in. “Once we pay back the bank, I want to have a bakery [in Prey Veng] and my sons can help me run it,” she says.


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