It’s still raining nearly two hours into 29-year-old Cintri worker Va Vanoen’s eight-hour night shift, and a row of wheeled rubbish carts is lined up on Street 141 in Prampi Makara’s O’Russey district to be clamped and heaved into the one-ton truck. With each growl and hiss, it adds a puff of diesel fumes to the already acrid smell of wet refuse.
With the rainy season’s arrival, the most difficult months of the year have begun for the army of garbage collectors who work day and night to keep the city (relatively) clean.
Trash, only some of it in bags, is piled on the street corner. Vanoeun and his six teammates have at it with pitchforks and their bare hands, heaving it into the back of the truck, which is leaking black water.
The odour is overwhelming, but the boys don’t flinch. Most say it took just a couple of months on the job to get used to it. “The trash is heavier when it’s wet,” Vanoeun says with a shrug.
Even though the night work is more dangerous, Vanoeun says it’s worthwhile. He gets more money than if he worked during the day, he said, although he admits, “It shocked me . . . when I see dead people who get into accidents on the street, or I happen to see a big eel or insects coming out of the canal.”
Of the city’s 12 districts, only four are serviced at night by some 800 dedicated night workers. The other eight are considered safe enough only for daytime work.
Chheang Vay, the supervisor for the four night districts, said his workers face issues ranging from illness to violent drug addicts and drunks, but the biggest danger is traffic accidents.
And according to data provided by Cintri, the traffic problem has gotten much worse recently for their 2,000 or so workers, with 114 accidents resulting in 7 deaths in 2015 , a troubling increase from the 57 accidents and two deaths in 2014.
Leang Pisey, 44, has driven a Cintri truck at night for nearly a decade to support his four children. He arrived in Phnom Penh from Kampot province with few skills and seeking a job.
“I hear a lot of bad words from people about dirtiness of the city while we are working,” he said standing by his truck and six team members at the start of a shift at O’Russey Market.
Parked by the market’s entrance, Pisey’s team gets to work on the waste produced by several hundred vendors over the course of a day. One vendor walks over and dumps a bucket of unsold soup into a pile.
Pisey’s salary was just $75 a month when he started in 2007, but this year it’s $175 plus overtime pay. Despite the drawbacks and stigma of his work, Pisey says is proud to be a company man making a living without resorting to crime, even if it means he is not rich.
“We are doing an honest job,” he said.The 2014 Cintri strike won a minimum monthly salary of $140 for drivers, and $90 for collectors. The company must now also provide 24-hour medical services.
In his years driving the capital’s streets, Pisey has seen it all – from people throwing trash at workers from balconies to much worse.
“We’ve experienced seeing dead infants or babies that people abandoned in black plastic bags. That garbage was collected from small [abortion] clinics and on the street,” he said.
“We’ve seen everything: dog, cat, pig or other [human] dead body parts like hands and legs. It scared us a lot in the past but now we are used to it,” he said.
Tragically, he said workers had even encountered cases of abandoned babies that workers discovered too late. “We could not save [them] because we didn’t notice it was a baby [at first], and the worker stabbed the bag with the pitchfork,” he said. “We’ve never informed police or authorities because the infant was already dead, so we kept it in the truck.”
Cintri manager Chanda said that since medical waste became the responsibility of a separate company in 2005, such cases should not occur and that he had never heard reports of live infants being found.
In such cases, workers must tell their superiors to inform authorities, he said. “It is a surprise to hear that they faced such things, but mostly they face aborted infants.”
Somchan Sovandara, deputy head of the department of psychology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that while he couldn’t speak for any one individual, the stresses faced by garbage workers could clearly cause psychological harm compared to those of others.
“Facing dead bodies, or babies, or animals can [cause] double shock,” he said. Sovandara added that taking hygiene precautions could help, but despite the company providing workers with gloves, coats, and uniforms, many sanitation workers forgo the use of protective wear. Among the workers Post Weekend reporters spent the night with, none had gloves, many wore flip-flops and a few went shirtless.
Cintri manager Ith Chanda said in an interview this week that the company was working on convincing workers to protect themselves. “We cannot force them when they don’t want to wear it because it is not a habit,” he said.
For supervisor Vay, the most pressing issue was keeping garbage off the streets, and his message to the residents and businesses of Phnom Penh was to follow proper garbage disposal guidelines. “When people get educated about this problem, the city will be clean,” he said.
Vanoeun, who has been a collector for seven years since he quit rice farming in his home province of Prey Veng, looked to his teammates as the truck prepared to move to the next block. “We are like a family,” he said.
But, he added, garbage workers could use a little more respect.
“It is not fun to work with this job to keep the city clean while people say we don’t do our job.”