“Another guy on the construction site, yesterday he fall down and die”.
This was the translated reply when I asked after Dara’s parents yesterday.
Googling to find out more about construction worker safety, the top search results are:
Construction Workers’ Lives Hang in the Balance (November 2014, Cambodia Daily)
Construction Worker Falls to Death at Phnom Penh Job Site (April 2015, Cambodia Daily)
Elevator Crash Kills Three At Building Site (May 2015, Cambodia Daily)
Three Crushed To Death While Moving Marble in Phnom Penh (June 2015, Cambodia Daily)
Construction Tragedy (July 2015, Phnom Penh Post)
Concrete Collapse Kills Construction Worker (July 2015, Khmer Times)
The International Labour Organisation estimated that four occupational deaths per day occurred in Cambodia in 2009, with construction and brick kiln work listed as the most dangerous occupations. Injuries outnumber deaths and accidents are neither tracked nor reported, except by newspapers if they learn about it, which it seems they usually do not. Dara’s mother now knows of four deaths on her construction site alone in a matter of less than eight weeks. None of these seem to have been reported in the media, testifying to the fact that most casualties occur without any publicity whatsoever. Not only are there few physical safety nets on-site, but there are no insurance or workers’ compensation safety nets either, so injuries must lead to severe financial hardship as I have talked about a lot recently. These peoples’ lives hold no value whatsoever.
The highest contributors to Cambodia’s GDP are the garment industry, followed by construction/real estate, and in third place, tourism. The fact that construction is booming, especially in Phnom Penh where high rises are springing up all over the city, illustrates an improvement in living standards causing a high demand for housing. Wages for construction workers are reportedly rising in line with this strong economic growth. There are estimated to be between 175,000 to 200,000 construction workers in Cambodia, most of them unskilled workers who are paid cash by the day (between $5 and $8 per day).
Although the Ministry of Labor is officially responsible for worker safety, there is no safety code and private firms are left to police themselves. There are no repercussions to companies for workplace accidents and it is difficult to inspect sites as authorities hold little power and are simply turned away. Dara’s parents travelled home yesterday, and when we called to ask after them a few hours after our visit, Rita said that they are thinking about whether to return to work or not. I am unsure about Nathan but I know that Rita does not read or write. Her options for employment are therefore very limited and I expect that once the shock of the latest accident fades, she will be back on the ladder, climbing towards the sky. The thought makes me feel ill.
Meanwhile I am trying to soak in as many memories of ordinary daily life as I can. The organised chaos of marketplaces and streets are filled with often-amusing, sometimes-horrifying, ever-interesting sights, usually courtesy of the capacity-defying abilities of bicycles, motorbikes, mini vans, human anatomy and agility, and other realms which my first world brain has spent four decades believing had much less aptitude than they actually have. On a daily basis I can’t reach for my camera in time and miss capturing sights I want to tattoo into my memory bank. On the odd occasion I gasp with surprise and get the camera into my hand and switched on in time. Not a day goes by without a stirring in my heart at the hilarious abilities of people with so little, making so much out of what they have.