Factory Collapse Deaths Called ‘Small Incident’

Police questioned two people over the deadly building collapse on Thursday at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory in Kompong Speu province that killed two people and left 11 injured, but released them the same day without charge.

A senior manager at the Wing Star factory, which produces sports shoes for Japanese brand Asics, said on Friday that his firm regretted the deaths of the two young workers, which he described as a “small incident” that did require an investigation to determine responsibility before the law.

Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the national police, said Friday that one of the two men called in for questioning was a manager at Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd., while the second man was responsible for building the approximately 9-by-15 meter section of a cement ceiling that collapsed and crushed the workers below.

“We invited two Cambodian men for questioning on Thursday. Now, they were let go already, and we are still investigating the case,” Mr. Chantharith said, adding that an investigation is ongoing, and he could not say if it would lead to arrests.

Speaking at a news conference at the Phnom Penh Hotel attended by factory management and representatives of the Garment Manu­fac­tur­ers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), Wing Star’s shipping man­ager, Chan Kosal, was at pains to stress that the collapse of the cement floor and the crushing of workers was nothing more than an unfortunate “accident.”

“[On Thursday], there was a small incident that took place…the company will be responsible be­fore the families for it’s negligence,” and pay compensation, Mr. Kosal said.

“I think it is not such a serious case that would lead us to run away, or should lead to the arrest of anyone,” Mr. Kosal said, adding that in his opinion, people should only face charges if the factory did not pay compensation to the dead and injured.

“Regarding an arrest, this should only happen in case there is no solution [on compensation] with the victims,” he said.

Asked weather Wing Star had a permit to build the section of ceiling that collapsed, Mr. Kosal shifted responsibility, saying that a construction company was responsible for the collapsed floor, though he declined to name the company.

“My factory hired a sub-contractor for the construction…we just used the building for work,” he said.

GMAC President Van Sou Ieng said that factories do not need approval for all construction work they undertake.

“Frankly speaking, the factories do not have to ask for permission for small constructions,” he said.

From now on, however, factories should inspect the safety of their buildings, Mr. Ieng said.

Morm Narey, chief of the Kompong Speu provincial department of land management, urban planning and construction, said at the factory on Thursday that the section that had collapsed was part of an unapproved expansion the com­pany had built connecting two factory buildings.

“They built it technically wrong and then put heavy stuff on it,” he said.

Moeun Tola, head of the Com­munity Legal Education Center’s labor program, said on Friday that downplaying the incident was insulting to the victims and their families.

“How can you say it’s a small accident? Two people died,” he said.

Authorities and the factory owners need to be held responsible as better maintenance and monitoring should have been in place, Mr. Tola said.

“Even the authorities complained about the owner, and the construction had no permit. They are all just making excuses now,” he said.

So Panha, director general of Cambodia’s board of professional engineers, declined to comment on construction standards at the Wing Star factory, but said that he had been tasked by the government to inspect the site and report.

“I will go on Monday with a few other engineers, but I cannot assess it without going there,” he said.

Judging from pictures of the collapsed factory, Michael Shaw from the NGO Engineers Without Borders, concluded that the construction was not built to last, as the metal beams that appeared to have buckled were only joined by welding.

“Welded joints are not structurally sound if there is any misalignment [and] beams should be bolted and flanged and welded, and sit on plinths,” Mr. Shaw said in an email.

“This building [was] not designed and constructed to pro­per safety standards,” Mr. Shaw concluded, adding that Cambodia had no such safety standards, and that a similar incident could occur again.

The Wing Star factory was not monitored by the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Better Factories Cambodia. The ILO only started monitoring footwear factories last year, and out of the 45 footwear factories currently ex­porting shoes from Cambodia, only nine are being monitored by Bet­ter Factories, the program’s technical adviser Jill Tucker said on Thursday, explaining that participation in the Better Factories program is entirely voluntary.

Maeve Galvin, a consultant for Better Factories Cambodia, said on Friday that an investigation is needed.

“What we need is an investigation to get information and find out who is responsible and why it really happened,” she said.

“Obviously the people involved are the factory ownership and the management, the Royal Govern­ment of Cambodia—who have a labor inspections department—and the international buyers sourcing from the factory. Those are the four groups who have the responsibility to take action.”

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