Ministry Says Factory Was Operating Illegally

A Phnom Penh garment factory where two people died after a boiler exploded on Saturday had not adequately trained staff to operate the machine or registered the factory because the business was a “pilot project,” a relative of the owners said on Monday.

The Sepakam (Handicraft) Chan Sengheng factory began operating on April 1—just a week before the explosion—without receiving a production permit from the Industry and Handicrafts Ministry, said Ly Kheng, whose daughter and son-in-law own the factory, which is located within the same compound in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey commune as a soy sauce production factory that Ms. Kheng owns.

cam photo explosion hawkins KHMER
Rubble is inspected at a garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district yesterday after a steam generator exploded and killed two workers on Saturday. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Soeun Phal, a 27-year-old security guard, and Kong Phanny, a 61-year-old cleaner, died when a wood-fired steam generator exploded. The guard, who did not know how to operate the machine, had been seen adding more wood to the generator’s fire before the explosion, authorities and workers have said.

Lim Gekh Heak, the factory’s co-owner, authorized her mother to speak on Monday on her behalf.

Ms. Kheng said the family had not yet registered Sepakam Chan Sengheng as a garment factory because the business was still in its pilot phase.

But Industry and Handicrafts Ministry spokesman Oum Sotha said no such exception to the registration requirement existed, meaning the business had been operating illegally.

Mr. Sotha added that ministry officials visiting the factory on Monday had determined that unskilled workers were operating complex machinery, and that the factory was to blame for the explosion.

“Those operating the boilers need clear skills and proper certificates,” he said.

Ms. Kheng confirmed the officials’ visit on Monday, and said they had advised her to hire a trained generator operator when the apparel operation reopens. She said an official also spoke to one of her employees currently operating a wood-fired generator inside her soy sauce factory, Pheng Ly Soy Sauce Enterprise Product, and “told him what to do.”

“We will reopen, but I’m not yet sure when,” she said.

Deputy Meanchey district governor Dy Roth Khemarun said the factory would be allowed to reopen if it got the go-ahead from the Labor Ministry.

“When the ministry can send officials to come to inspect and recommend the improvements to meet technical standards, and when the ministry issues a letter for reopening, the local authority will also [allow it],” he said.

Ouch Many, director of the ministry’s department of technique, science and technology, said on Sunday that industrial equipment such as steam generators needed to be registered with the ministry, which performs routine checks on them.

Workers at the compound said on Monday that although the current garment operation had just recently started, various previous owners had used the same site and generators.

Oum Chanthy, an equipment manager at the soy sauce factory, said the exploded generator had been installed about a year ago, but no officials had ever tested it.

Mr. Chanthy said he went next door to the garment factory days before the explosion to open the generator’s pressure valve after being alerted to an issue by the security guard. He said he was familiar with the machinery, but had no formal training in operating that particular generator.

Mr. Chanthy was not at work when Saturday’s malfunction occurred, he said, but it was his understanding that Soeun Phal and Kong Phanny had attempted to remove burning logs instead of releasing the pressure valve.

“If they reopen, they should look for someone with the skills and training,” he said, adding that the negligence of using unskilled staff had put the factory’s neighbors in danger. Large pieces of the generator flew about 150 meters and hit a residential building next door, causing damage to the windows, he said.

Deputy Meanchey district police chief Hour Meng Vang said police officers were still searching for a repairman whom the factory hired on Friday, when the generator was leaking steam.

Last month, the same type of generator killed one worker and injured seven others when it soared about 100 meters into the air and crashed into a cafeteria at a factory producing jeans for U.S. brand Levi’s in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. The Chinese-owned Zhen Tai Garment factory gave the family of the deceased worker $12,000 in compensation.

Ms. Kheng said on Monday she had already paid $3,000 in compensation to the family of the guard, while Kong Phanny’s family were too busy with the funeral to start negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Ouch Sony)

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