Watching Workers on the River

As I left home a few moments ago on my bicycle the thought crossed my mind, “whenever I leave home without my camera I regret it”.  It didn’t stop me from leaving home without my camera.  So now, as I sit at the open doorway of a riverside restaurant with wi-fi, ceiling fans and a stand-alone fan blowing on me, good food and ice cold water, I am regretting it!  Although thank goodness for iPhones.  Over the road from me a group of around twenty workers that I can see, more on the embankment below, are working around huge piles of sand and gravel laid along the roadside.  Without a decent camera I’ll see how I go at describing the scene before me on this Sunday afternoon.

The weather includes temperatures of 37C, reported by World Weather Online to feel like 45C, humidity of 83% and thunderstorms in the area predicted to hit town later this afternoon.  So it is officially hot and in my balmy comfort I feel decidedly warm such that without the fans blowing around me, the sweat beads would be imitating large cockroaches bounding from scalp to earlobes at a drenching rate of knots.  As I finished typing this paragraph a light rain set in.  Three hours later heavy rains began to pour and the workers I’d watched all afternoon strolled home, some pulling wheelbarrows, some carting tools, others with loads on their heads, all drenched in the warm waters which I am sure washed away many sweats.

Directly over the road from me is a wide riverside promenade with a short wall leading over onto the dirt embankment which currently leads about ten metres down into the slowly-rising brown waters of the Mekong river.  Eventually, near the end of the just-beginning Monsoon season, the river level will predictably rise the full ten metres up to the wall beside the promenade.  Last year, shortly before I arrived here, the water threatened to break over this wall and I believe that in previous years it has.  It must already be raining extensively north of us as the river level has risen visibly, concealing lower pylons of Kizuna Bridge which previously rose quite a distance out of the water.  The much loved bamboo bridge further downstream was dismantled a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of the rising waters and the seasonal ferry reinstated between the mainland and Koh Paen Island.

Photographed a month ago, the 16 lower pylons under each main pylon of Kizuna Bridge are now underwater.
Photographed a month ago, the 16 lower pylons under each main pylon of Kizuna Bridge are now underwater.

Over the road from me two noisy concrete mixers are whirring constantly on the newly-extended riverbank which has been widened by about two metres very recently, changing the embankment from a gradual slope to a steep-ish climb.  The twenty-plus chain gang of workers are all covered from head (hats or traditional checked kramar scarfs) to toe (workboots at best; thongs with or at worst, without socks), including long sleeves and some even have tracksuit jackets or cardigans on.  It is difficult to identify anyone but I can see that at least three of the workers are young women.  When I have asked (usually women) why they dress in such hot clothes in this torrid heat, they explain that they want to protect their skin.  There is a common admiration in Cambodia for light skin.  Dark skin represents poverty as it is acquired by outdoor work such as farming and labouring.  Skin lightening products are common in pharmacies here, the way that tanning products are seen in places like Australia, England and USA.

Thongs, jeans, jumper, sunhat and shovel - work attire on a scorching Sunday
Thongs, jeans, jumper, sunhat and shovel – work attire on a scorching Sunday

Despite their winter-like, sweltering attire, the team are working steadily.  A group of three very young men are responsible for the metal framed wheelbarrow which travels empty along the road, past me and beyond the corner.  A few moments later it returns, loaded with sacks which I guess are filled with concrete sand.  All are dressed in filthy denim shirts and jeans, one in a blue cap, another with a kramar wrapped around his head and the other in a traditional checked sunhat with a matching flap off the back which buttons up around the neck, obscuring his face with just an opening for his eyes.  One walks between the handlebars pulling them, while the other two are hunched over the back of the barrow, pushing.  When they get to the area in front of the concrete mixers, they drag the heavy sacks off the barrow where another team, working in pairs, open the sack, pour it’s contents into a large bucket, lift the bucket jointly and position it onto the shoulder of one who then carts it to the mixer, where another worker receives and pours it into the rotating barrel.  Meanwhile men and women are shoveling, digging, carting mixtures of sand and gravel in big buckets on their shoulders to the mixers in a steady stream, standing to the side for cigarette breaks, wiping brows with the loose flaps of their kramas and hats.  I’ve never really been exposed to such organised and backbreaking toil, which I guess is why it’s so fascinating.

Riverside restorations in action
Riverside restorations in action
Riverside restorations in action near Kizuna Bridge, Kampong Cham
Riverside restorations in action near Kizuna Bridge, Kampong Cham
Labouring in thongs
Labouring in thongs

About 100 metres from where we are all spending our afternoon in such contrasting endeavours, is a small wooden shacked village which arose on a patch of bare land near our large palatial home at the beginning of the year.  Perched on the embankment between the river and the Night Market, this village consists of maybe 40 people including women and small children who are often seen running naked on the shabby raised wooden verandahs and regularly shout out “hello!” excitedly as we cycle past.  The adults also regularly smile or say hello as we pass by, as interested in the foreigners as the foreigners are in them.  From the irregular observations I have been able to make of these neighbours, they seem to be workers who moved here to work on the riverside restorations which have been taking place for months now.  As soon as the shacks appeared, so did a new wide bitumen road (their first project as part of the riverside development unfolding before us), followed shortly after by some pipes leading from the river, up the embankment, across this new road and into the village of shacks.  The pipes are secured by slats of wood and rocks running parallel to them, which seem to have the purpose of protecting the tubes from damage by the traffic constantly driving over them.

New shanty town, Mekong embankment Kampong Cham
Rains roll in towards a new shanty town, Mekong embankment, Kampong Cham

According to reports I have read, the average labourer in Cambodia earns around $4 per day.  There is a lot of energy expended for this meagre income which explains the typically thin and lithe Cambodian physique.  In contrast, my colleagues are on considerably “high” pay, from between US$300 to US$500 per month depending on qualifications and role.  But this is not a guaranteed income, with MSF projects always being of a temporary nature.  Some months ago one of our projects came to an end and most of the staff from this project remain unemployed as work opportunities are limited, even for qualified professionals.

Another common Cambodian experience appears to be that of living in shared accommodation.  Many of my colleagues, as I regularly mention, live far away from their dependent families and in order to increase the amount they can provide home, they share small rooms with friends and colleagues.  This communal living, the hard physical labour and the good natured collaborative teamwork which I witness from my western, individualistic position is another fascinating observation which not only teaches me about Cambodian life, it equally causes me daily, to speculate about myself, who I am and the cultural norms which built me.

Meanwhile, many stories are emerging from events in Thailand following the military coup last month, with an exodus of illegal workers crossing the border back to Cambodia after an army spokesperson called illegal labourers a threat to Thailand, promising to arrest and deport anyone found without papers.  In comparison to Cambodia where 20% of the population live on less than $1.25 per day and there is no minimum wage, Thailand have a minimum wage of $10 per day and industries which have relied on migrant workers in jobs shunned by Thai workers.  Around 200,000 of the estimated one million illegal workers in Thailand are thought to be Cambodian, the rest Burmese and Laotian.  Another two million migrant workers, many of them Cambodian, are reported to be legally registered to work in Thailand, but they are not considered safe from the military junta if reports are to be believed.  The real numbers are not known and if this estimate is correct then most illegal Cambodian workers have returned home in the past two weeks amid reports from Thailand of violent house raids, destruction of legal workers’ documents, beatings and shootings resulting in at least nine deaths with more than eight other deaths and even more serious injuries following accidents en route to the border.

There are also numerous reports of extortion by military officials only assuring safe passage on receipt of payment of up to $66 per person, leaving people destitute and with no way of returning to their homes from the borders, as well as other human rights abuses.  Thousands of workers have been abandoned at the border having been repatriated without warning or collaboration with Cambodian authorities who, along with various charitable organisations have had to scramble to the border to try and assist returning citizens.  Hundreds of thousands of families who have until now relied on the salaries being earned in Thai industries such as fisheries, agriculture and construction (some of which have been heavily criticised for running a modern day slave trade despite the official minimum wage), are now without income.  I continue to visualise the appearance of both parents of the homeless girls who I talk about but as yet this has not happened and I wonder at their fate.  The vulnerability of the world’s poorest people could not be more evident than in this single set of events occurring in a single month in one small patch of the world.

Slaves forced to work on Thai fishing boats for no pay and under threat of extreme violence (The Guardian 20 June 2014)
Slaves forced to work on Thai fishing boats for no pay and under threat of extreme violence (The Guardian 20 June 2014)

In Thailand, the Guardian investigation found that slaves forced to work on Thai fishing boats are integral to the production of prawns sold in the UK, US and EU.  (See more at US demotes Thailand and Qatar for abysmal human trafficking records – Corruption impedes progress in Thailand and workers die in both because of conditions, Friday 20 June 2014

Scenes in Poipet as >200,000 workers return to Cambodia (Phnom Penh Post, 21 June 2014)
Scenes in Poipet as >200,000 workers return to Cambodia (Bangkok Post, 21 June 2014)

Despite the horrors being reported, there are glimpses of good news.  For example, the Cambodian government have slashed passport prices from US$135 – prohibitive for many – to US$4, effective from last Friday, in a move to provide Cambodians with a means to apply for the documents required to work in Thailand legally.  This may reduce the power that human traffickers currently hold over illegal workers.

Perhaps most staggering of all is the fact that amidst this extreme situation of mass human degradation, violence, poverty and corruption, a wealthy neighbouring country (Australia) has set it’s sights on Cambodia as a place to resettle a few thousand refugees who arrive by boat each year, seeking protection.  Opposition to this plan has come from Cambodian NGOs, the UNHCR and the Refugee Council of Australia.  I can only hope that common sense and justice will prevail.

One thought on “Watching Workers on the River

  1. I can picture the scene of the workers and know exactly where they are.
    The thought of a refugee problem of such proportions being foisted onto Cambodia beggers belief.


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