Garment workers were involved in more than 4,300 separate traffic accidents as they traveled to and from their factories last year, leading to 60 fatalities, according to a report released by the government on Thursday.
However, industry representatives, labor advocates and government officials were sharply divided over who bears responsibility for the safety of the country’s 700,000 garment workers.
The 24-page report, compiled by the National Social Security Fund’s (NSSF) Working Group on Land Traffic Safety for Workers’ Protection, attributes the high number of accidents to a number of factors, including the sorry state of the privately operated trucks that transport workers to their factories and back home each day.
The report describes the vehicles as “old,” “overloaded” and “poorly maintained,” adding: “Some means of transport for workers are trucks meant for goods.”
The report also lays out a list of recommendations and planned measures to boost safety for workers in Cambodia’s largest export industry, including traffic accident research, first-aid training, a database of truck drivers and education programs for those drivers.
Despite his working group’s recommendations, however, NSSF deputy director Sum Sophorn said that workers ultimately had to be responsible for their own safety.
“They should have advised the drivers on how to drive,” he said. “They should have advised them because they were the ones on the truck, and placed their lives in the hands of the drivers.”
Moeun Tola, executive director of the newly founded Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said Mr. Sophorn had the worker-safety equation upside down.
“I don’t think it’s the workers’ failure. It’s the government’s failure,” Mr. Tola said. “It’s quite common when you don’t have money, you have to look at the cheapest service or goods.”
He added that the government needed to consider providing a public transportation system for garment workers.
“As long as workers receive low wages, they’re still looking for cheap private transportation, and if the government does not care about public transportation, I don’t think the issue will be addressed much,” Mr. Tola said, noting that the monthly $7 transportation allowance stipulated by the government also needed to be raised.
“If they had enough money, the workers would demand that truck drivers not load so many people,” he said. “If people have enough to fulfill their basic needs, people will think about their own safety.”
“The transport allowance should be adjusted now because the cost of living is also higher and the [cost of] transportation is also higher,” he added.
“I don’t think the factories will voluntarily do it, unless the government forces them.”
William Conklin, country director for the U.S.-based labor rights group Solidarity Center, said a general disregard for the rules of the road would negate any effort to educate or better regulate the truck drivers.
“You can’t take it out of the overall traffic and transport system that exists in Cambodia. You can’t just say, ‘Oh look, we should have vehicle inspection’ or ‘we should have licenses for these drivers’…or ‘we should have education’ and expect that is going to make a major difference,” Mr. Conklin said.
“What is it like driving in Cambodia now? You have roads that are not big enough for all the heavy traffic on them. So you are going to have a lot of dangerous situations.”
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, echoed Mr. Sophorn, saying the “bulk of responsibility lies with the workers themselves” and that workers should not look to their employers for a solution.
“Really, it is just lame to point fingers at the employers, when the workers know what they are getting into,” Mr. Loo said, dismissing Mr. Tola’s suggestion of a raise. “Workers know very well what they are getting into, and I can’t buy the excuse that ‘Oh, they don’t earn enough to show more care for their own safety.’”
“If you move as a group, I’m sure you can find a safer vehicle to ride in,” he said. “Either you try to improve your situation or you should consider changing jobs.”
“If they don’t care about their own lives, then who’s going to care for them?”