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When a risky road is the only option

Thousands of garment workers travel to work standing up in flatbed trucks every day.
Thousands of garment workers travel to work standing up in flatbed trucks every day. Eliah Lillis

When a risky road is the only option

For many working in Cambodia’s garment factories, the only way to get there is in the back of a truck. Even those who suffer accidents return to work the same way.

The truck creaks and groans as it makes its way down Kampong Speu’s dusty and pothole-ridden Road 51.

On the flatbed, 43 garment workers stand in neat lines, their hands gripping the truck’s shaky metal cage. They are practised in swaying with its every movement.

All is quiet as the sun creeps into the horizon. Then the truck’s undercarriage hits the edge of a ditch with a clang. The workers let out a collective groan then return their gazes forward, seemingly unfazed.

But 45-year-old Chreng Saren looks terrified.

Saren works at a factory in the province’s Samrong Tong district ironing dresses and coats. On August 3, she was travelling to work in an open truck when the driver swerved off the road to avoid a collision.

The accident injured 33 workers onboard, including three who were rushed to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital. Saren hurt her fingers and bruised her ribcage.

“Even before the accident, we were worried and scared about travelling on a truck,” Saren says. “We keep worrying until we reach home and then, relief.”

On the road

As it starts to get brighter, all you can see of most of workers – who are all women save one – is the top half of their faces, which are now covered in a thin layer of red dust. Their eyes are focused on the road ahead, anticipating the next bump.

Hushed conversations about drunk husbands are interspersed with giggles over last night’s television drama.

All the while, the workers are cognisant of holding on to the loosely welded metal poles, the only protection they have. “We talk about things, but we have to hold onto the truck firmly,” Saren says.

Garment workers grab onto loose steel poles for support throughout the ride.
Garment workers grab onto loose steel poles for support throughout the ride. Eliah Lillis

Those positioned at the ends of the truck, can grasp onto the sides to steady themselves. But those in the centre are constantly swaying, crashing into their neighbours.

As the truck reaches a relatively clear section of road, it starts to speed up. It is getting close to clock-in time. The street is now lined with garment factories and a convoy of 10 to 20 trucks is driving in unison, halting to drop off workers before returning to the growing fleet.

The conversation lulls, and Saren says that what scared her most about the accident was her 25-year-old daughter’s presence on the same truck. Both of them escaped with minor injuries, but they now prefer to travel in separate vehicles.

The mother-daughter duo is the only source of income for their family of 10, putting food on the table and the other children through school.

“I think it is good [to go separately], because then we both will not end up in the same tragedy,” Saren says. “If it happens again, then one can take care of the other.”

During the commute, Saren talks with her fellow travellers about their rice crop, salaries and village gossip. Suddenly, the truck sways to the left to avoid a pothole, the metal cage straining under the pressure.

This time, Saren has a wry smile on her face. “Now you see the life of a garment worker,” she says.

A risky ride

Saren’s ride to work resembles that of many of Cambodia’s 700,000 garment workers. While injuries on the factory floor often dominate the conversation on working conditions, the risks begin before the workers arrive.\

A survey carried out by the Center for Policy Studies and commissioned by labour-rights NGO Solidarity Center earlier this year found that 53 percent of respondents walked to their factory, followed by the use of personal motorbikes and open trucks. (Around Phnom Penh, many workers rent rooms close to their worksites.)

Neth Sokha hasn’t been able to work since a truck accident.
Neth Sokha hasn’t been able to work since a truck accident. Eliah Lillis

But the survey’s provincial data shows that close to 40 percent of workers stand in the back of an open truck, minivan or motorcycle trailers known as remorks to get to the factory, crammed like cattle. On average, the journey takes 36 minutes.

Saren says she dares not take her own motorcycle to work.

“I am afraid to ride the moto, because there are many cars, and I don’t want to ride on the big roads,” she explains, adding that it would be costlier than the $10 a month she currently pays the truck driver.

The anxiety that comes with having been in an accident makes it only that much harder to get back on the road. But she had no other option, and Saren is luckier than some.

Neth Sokha, 28, has been sewing underwear, bras and bikinis for 11 years. She was alongside Saren during the accident. She only remembers letting go of the hand rail to adjust her scarf and then finding herself outside the truck, her mouth cut up and large gashes running down her right arm.

“Thinking of the accident, I get very nervous,” she says. “Just thinking of it makes me cry every day.”

Sitting at Saren’s home – the two are neighbours – she removes her jumper to reveal two 15-centimetre-long scars on her arm in addition to the marks on her upper lip. The smile on her face has disappeared.

Sokha was one of three workers sent to Phnom Penh following the crash and spent more than three weeks recuperating in a hospital bed. Constrained by her financial situation, she attempted to return to work but was unable to perform.

“The doctor said I am not fully recovered and that I am not ready to go back to work,” she explains. “I went back to work for a week but could not bear the pain.”

So now she stays at home. Sokha’s husband is unemployed, and Sokha has had to rely on the $1,000 she received as compensation from the erring driver and $104 – just 70 percent of the minimum wage – provided by the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) to run her household.

Chreng Saren and her daughter take separate trucks to work.
Chreng Saren and her daughter take separate trucks to work. Eliah Lillis

Sokha is worried that she won’t be able to sew as fast as she could before. She works on a per-piece rate and is unsure if she will be able to keep up with the high-speed production expected by her managers.

“It is going to be very hard. I cannot rest if my arm hurts – we just need to keep working,” she says.She is counting down the days until she has to once again hop onto the back of a truck, blocking out the memories of her recent crash.

“On January 6, I will go back to work, because it is the only option for me to earn a living,” she says.

Laying the blame?

Following a slew of accidents during the first half of the year – including the death of five workers in Kampong Speu – the authorities announced training programs for drivers and regular checks for licence and registration documents.

A mid-year report from the NSSF showed a drop in garment worker accidents compared with the first six months of 2015, with 297 crashes. The Post reported on nine fatalities during the first half of this year.

While the accidents continue, the Ministry of Transportation maintains that it is educating drivers on the traffic law and requesting that they abandon their dilapidated trucks for relatively safer minivans.

“But what can we do? We cannot just solve this problem quickly,” says department director Chan Dara. “We hope that problem will be solved soon and trucks having such problems will decrease.”

William Conklin, the country director for Solidarity Center, agrees a solution in the near-term is unlikely: The problem has been 20 years in the making, he says.

He explains that factories in the provinces seek the cheapest rents, leading them to be located far from worker populations – and leaving workers with no choice but to use unsafe transportation.

The road transport survey showed that about 40 per cent of workers were using transport that should not “really be on the roads” in the first place, he says: rundown trucks, overcrowded vans and remorks.

Each truck makes several factory stops.
Each truck makes several factory stops. Eliah Lillis

Conklin says the current approach – that is, to deal with errant drivers – is not ideal. The drivers fill a gap in the sector. “If you have a grand plan to remove all these vehicles off the road, what do you replace it with?” he says.

But in reality, the brunt of the anger is directed at drivers. Sitting at the back of his house, a few kilometres from Saren’s home, Im Phal is reluctant to talk about August 3.

Like the women, he doesn’t like to think about it.

Phal was driving more than 50 workers to work when he says he had a decision to make: hit the truck that appeared out of nowhere or veer away towards the side of the road. He chose the latter.

“If I swerved to the other side, it would have been more severe. I would have hit a car head on and workers could have died,” he says, gesticulating with his arms.

“I escaped from the scene after helping to carry some seriously injured workers, because I was scared their relatives would beat me up,” he adds.

Phal says he feels bad for the workers, with whom he had developed a friendly bond. While he was driving slowly and the other truck was at fault, he has to bear the the workers’ ire.

“Society is very hard on me. I’m scared to drive again. I have given up,” he says.

Phal has not been behind the wheel since August, and the truck he used a loan to buy is sitting in a garage. In addition to having to pay back his loan, Phal was asked by the police to pay $1,000 to seriously injured workers in return for his truck. “Now I am just working on my rice farm. I am going to have to sell my truck to pay back my debt,” he says, before walking away.

Back to work

As the truck slowly rolls along, passing through plumes of dust, Saren begins to position herself to the right. Just as it crosses a small intersection, she points to a bushy patch along the street.

“That is where we had the accident,” she says, looking away immediately. “I am so scared to see the spot. I just want to close my eyes.”

The trauma continues to haunt Saren, who tried hard to hold back the tears. Two weeks ago, two tires on the truck she currently uses blew out. There was no accident, but it gave Saren an acute sense of déjà vu.

“Some of the workers started laughing, because they had never been in an accident,” she says. “I was scared and pale. I said, ‘We almost died and you are laughing?’”

A few kilometres down the road, Saren hops off the truck and joins the stream of workers entering the massive factory.

In just nine hours, she’ll be on it once more, focusing on home, and the feeling of relief reaching it brings.


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