Construction work is difficult, dangerous and low-paying, but it’s the only job many women can find. And according to some estimates, they account for up to 30pc of all building site employees
Tith Rattana at work on the Canadia Tower building site in downtown Phnom Penh. She is just one of thousands of female construction workers across the Kingdom.
POVERTY and a lack of employment options in their home provinces have led thousands of unskilled women workers to look for - and find - grueling low-paid employment in Cambodia's construction sector.
Lay Neang, 34, a mother of two from Prey Veng province, is part of the team working on the Canadia Tower project in downtown Phnom Penh.
"I came to Phnom Penh to find a job because my rice field did not produce any crop," she said. "I had no option other than working as a construction worker because I have to feed my family."
To maximise her savings and enable her to send money home, she lives on the construction site with many of the other workers, meaning she does not need to spend anything on housing or transport.
The exact number of women working in the sector is not known, but Sok Sovandeith, president of the Cambodia National Federation of Building and Wood Workers, said between 20 and 30 percent of the construction workers employed in the Kingdom are female.
To work as a construction worker you don’t need experience or skill. If you have power, you can work.
He said at the peak of the building boom in early 2008 around 100,000 people were employed in the construction sector in Cambodia - including around 30,000 women - and 45,000 to 50,000 in Phnom Penh alone.
"Most of them are farmers who come from other provinces to seek a job in Phnom Penh city because they need money to support their family," he said. "It's hard and heavy work at the top of tall buildings in the sun and the rain. If they want to rest, they don't get paid."
The women who end up working in the construction sector tend to be those who lack skills to work in the better-paying jobs in places like the garment or hospitality sectors.
Ourn Sothy, 31, also from Prey Veng province, has been working alongside her husband on the Canadia Tower site since 2007. She said she took the job when she was unable to find work in a garment factory due to a lack of skills.
"You need skill and experience to find work in a garment factory," she said. "But to work as a construction worker you don't need experience or skill. If you have power, you can work, but it's a heavy job and dangerous."
It's also low paying, especially for women. Soun Vanny, 23, who works on a construction site in Russei Keo district, said she earned up to 12,000 riels ($2.91) per day, which was 7,000 riels less than her male counterparts and not enough to support her family. "I wish to increase my wage up to 20,000 riels ($4.85) per day but even that is too low and will make it very difficult for me to live," she said.
Layoffs and low wages
With a building downturn gripping the country, wages are only likely to go in one direction, at least in the short-term.
Largely as a result of political uncertainties over relations with Thailand and the impact of the global financial crisis, building activity has plummeted since mid-2008. Up to 30 percent of all construction workers are thought to have lost their jobs, putting downwards pressure on wages.
Trouble in the garment sector has not helped. With an estimated 25,000, mostly female, garment workers laid off in 2008, the pool of workers looking for increasingly scarce jobs in construction sector has swelled.
Chea Vannath, a commentator on domestic social and political affairs, said women laid off from factories often turned to the gruelling work of a construction site due to few viable work options in their home towns.
"If they return back home, they have nothing to do, so they find a job on a construction site to make money to support their families" she said.
As well as being difficult work, a job in construction is also highly dangerous. Sok Sovandeith said workers face a wide range of safety risks, which he estimated lead to one fatality and 10 on-the-job injuries each day across Cambodia. While large construction companies usually insure their workers, most smaller ones do not, despite it being a requirement of the law.
Canadia Tower project manager Chea Vuthy said the company took care of the safety and paid compensation all workplace accidents, and paid workers for time taken off as a result of injury.
But Soun Vanny, who works on the site in Russei Keo, was not so lucky. She said she twice fell from a height of three metres, on one occasion knocking herself out.
"I was painting the ceiling and I fell and hit the floor hard," she recounted. "The construction owner paid for the hospital and the medication, but I did not get paid during my stay at the clinic."