Take an afternoon drive down any of Phnom Penh’s major boulevards these days and you are likely to encounter a hat-wearing, broom-wielding, green-uniformed person standing curbside, sweeping and cleaning amid a cloud of dust.
It is the kind of work that is helping people like 20-year-old Eng Srey Mom earn a living. And it is work that is improving Phnom Penh’s appearance as the city prepares to host several high-profile international conferences in the next year. But it isn’t doing much for Eng Srey Mom’s social life.
“I am cursed frequently by shopkeepers for causing dust in the air,” she said this week.
Eng Srey Mom is one of the Phnom Penh’s 300 street sweepers. On Aug 1 they went to work on a new schedule sporting the logo of their latest employer, the Canadian-based Cintri (Cambodia) Ltd.
In the last week, city officials have criticized Cintri for its daytime sweeping, normally a nocturnal task in Phnom Penh, but one that is now filling the air with unpleasant, all-encompassing dust. It’s a health violation, the municipality has charged.
Pascal Patrice, Cintri’s operations manager, said the sweeping schedule was changed so people could enjoy clean streets in the light of day, not just at night when filth is less visible.
“Although it is cleaner, they still want us to sweep only at night,” he said, sounding frustrated.
Sok Leakhena, the city’s deputy chief of Cabinet who was involved in the negotiations that brought Cintri to Cambodia, said he met with Cintri representatives last week.
”I told them they would have to cooperate with the city, the Department of Public Works and the Ministry of the Environment,” he said, adding that nothing has been resolved yet.
Patrice said a committee is being formed to discuss different ideas and problems that might arise. The committee will consist of representatives from Cintri, the municipality, the Department of Public Works and the Ministry of the Environment. They will discuss daytime sweeping later this week.
Patrice said Cintri’s contract stipulated that such a committee be formed but it has been slow coming together. “Things tend to take time here until you have a problem,” he said. “Then they speed up.”
He also said the street cleaners actually have been instructed to collect trash by hand from noon till 5 pm. Then they have an hour break, after which they are to sweep the 350 meter stretch assigned them until 9 pm.
Street cleaner Meas So Thun, 38, said she prefers to use a broom when cleaning the streets because it is very tedious to bend over and pick up individual pieces of trash. “Sweeping in the daytime is good because when people throw out waste during the day, the street cleaners can see it and sweep up the waste completely,” said one Cintri official.
Meas So Thun also complained that her job is made more difficult by heavy traffic during the day and the heat, which she said sometimes makes her sick. She said she would rather work extra hours at nighttime.
Po Ry, the owner of a sidewalk phone shop on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, said the dust stirred up by the sweepers floats into his street-level home all afternoon. He said he worries about the health risks associated with the floating dust.
“It does create dust,” Patrice acknowledged. “If there wasn’t dust we wouldn’t have to sweep.”
According to current labor laws followed by Cintri, street cleaners are to be paid overtime for working at night. But Patrice said keeping payroll costs low is not the reason Cintri has scheduled its workers during the day.
“The idea is to keep streets clean during the day,” he said. “Not only at night.”
Cintri pays its sweepers between $20 and about $31 a month, depending how many hours are worked, Patrice said. He said Cintri has just one truck that is a sweeper, but it is now broken. ”We have many ideas, but out of respect for the municipality, we want to discuss them with them first.”