Labourers work at a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, December 10, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX2UDAC

Currently, discussions about the rights and well-being of the working class in Cambodia are centered on the minimum wage. In his speech on December 10, International Human Rights Day, Prime Minister Hun Sen emphasized that the government had “received multiple requests from unions to set a minimum wage for workers in the construction sector,” a reference to the fact that Cambodia only has a minimum wage in its garment sector.

He also stressed that he was “seeking a minimum wage for the other sectors so that we know what workers in the kingdom are earning as well as to stop any exploitation of workers.”

Sok Kin, president of the Building and Woodworkers Trade Union of Cambodia (BWTUC), welcomed the idea of setting a minimum wage for the construction sector. “Construction workers as well as individuals [currently need to] negotiate wages with [their] employers just like domestic workers,” he said, the Khmer Times reported  at the same time as Hun Sen’s speech.

However, because the construction sector is mainly informal, regulating the minimum wage to improve the economic well-being of those workers is simply not enough. Instead, sophisticated policies are needed. Of similar importance are improvements in technical training and safety measures.

Most Cambodian construction workers face unsafe working conditions. Many of them, especially those working on high-rise buildings, have been injured, and some have even lost their lives. As working conditions are informal and workers move across various sites, it is difficult to estimate the number of injuries or fatal accidents. In some cases, construction companies even conceal incidents and numbers of accidents, it is alleged. Of the 1,010 construction workers surveyed by the BWTUC in mid-2017, 196 had suffered injuries – or 19% of the sample pool.

Most Cambodian construction workers face unsafe working conditions. Many of them, especially those working on high-rise buildings, have been injured, and some have even lost their lives

Cambodia’s construction industry is booming currently and will continue to be an essential part of the country’s economic development. In total, there are an estimated 250,000 construction workers, a number that is set to increase. Although the labor conditions in the sector are no better than in other sectors, in particular because employers do not pay much attention to safety-awareness measures, it remains unclear how they are to improve.

One problem is that even as the construction sector booms, it saw a 20% decline in capital investment in 2018, according to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction’s annual report. This may mean less money available for safety courses or to be spent on ensuring safety measures.

Leng Tong, director of the department in charge of health and safety at the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training (MLVT), said last year that construction-site owners were asked to open training courses for their workers on workplace safety so as to reduce the number of accidents. “The government is set to draft a number of laws and regulations aimed at reducing the number of accidents,” he said.

Meanwhile Dr Han Nopakun, deputy director of the Department of Occupational Safety and Health at the MLVT, said in December that the government was drafting Prakas (official regulations) that included rules for high-rise construction workers, construction equipment safety, shelter for workers, and social services. This seems to be a much-needed start toward providing nationwide safety standards for construction workers. However, it remains unclear when and how these Prakas will be enacted and implemented.

Moreover, international cooperation could improve conditions as well. The Labor Ministry announced that Japan would support governmental efforts to increase the knowledge of construction workers in Cambodia. According to statements made by Labor Minister Ith Samheng in February, “more than 9,000 Cambodian laborers work currently in Japan, and we hope that figure will double in the next years. Their construction companies accepted more than 300 Cambodian workers for construction work in Japan.”

He also highlighted that “Cambodian workers will be skilled for the work in the construction industry after [on-the-job] learning in Japan; later on, they will use their skills to develop the construction sector in Cambodia.”

Such cooperation with the Japanese government can provide a good model for providing training and safety measures to workers in sectors with low productivity. This might even avoid a chasm growing between extremely well-skilled workers who are trained abroad and those workers who do not have a chance to migrate for work, while at the same time possibly reducing the numbers of accidents suffered during working hours because of the lack of training and safety measures.

Another feature the government should consider is including construction workers into the National Social Security Fund, a national insurance scheme. The deputy director of the NSSF, Sum Sophorn, said in May 2018 in reference to construction workers: “We encourage employers to register for the NSSF at the Ministry of Labor. So far over 500 companies have registered.” He added that “they will get free treatment at a hospital, if workers receive the NSSF card and company owners register them, even though they do not have working contracts.”

Assuming that the government encourages only employers to register their workers for the NSSF, it may not work out as thought. Instead, the government needs to implement a sub-degree to include construction workers into the NSSF. In fact, about 90% of construction workers are unaware of the NSSF, according to a survey conducted in 2017. Because workers who encounter serious injuries are not able to afford the medical costs on their own, their employers should brief or train them about the NSSF before they start to work at the site.

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Teung Seila

Teung Seila is a Young Research Fellow of Future Forum, a public policy think-tank based in Phnom Penh. She is currently conducting a research project on well-being and working conditions of the booming construction sector in Cambodia.

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