Factory Orders Staff Back to Work Amid Safety Concerns

Employees at a Taiwanese-owned shoe factory in Kompong Speu province where two workers were killed when one of the building’s floors collapsed on Thursday have been ordered back to work today, despite ongoing concerns from labor activists about the building’s safety.

While conceding that some parts of the building—including the section that collapsed—had been built without a permit and were potentially unstable, an official for the provincial department of land management said Sunday that workers could safely re­turn to work as “warning signs” would be erected to avert employees from parts of the factory still deemed unsafe.

“There are two illegal extensions to the building, which have to be removed,” said Mam Narey, bureau chief of the provincial construction department. “We cannot keep them because it is very dangerous for the workers.”

Though one of the extensions has already buckled under the weight of stock stored on the second floor, he said the rest of the factory complex was “strong enough.”

“We will just put up a warning sign so that they don’t pass under those parts,” he said.

The mezzanine level of the Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd. in Kong Pisei district collapsed on Thurs­day morning, crushing workers who were arriving at the factory. According to the authorities, steel beams holding up the concrete flooring buckled under the weight of boxes of shoes due to shoddy construction done without a permit.

Two workers, Sim Srey Touch, 22, and Rim Saroeun, 22, were killed, while nine other workers were sent to Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital with serious injuries.

Ly Hour, a representative of Wing Star Shoes—which employs more than 7,000 workers to produce shoes for Japanese sports brand ASICS—confirmed Sunday that work would resume at the factory today.

“The factory will reopen tomorrow. They had days off since the incident happened,” she said.

A manager for ASICS based in Kobe, Japan, on Sunday said the firm had launched its own investigation into the cause of the collapse.

“Safe and ethical working conditions are of paramount importance to ASICS. We have launched our own investigation into the cause of the incident in full cooperation with the relevant authorities. In addition to our ASICS staff already on site, two representatives plus related people from ASICS cor­poration head­quarters will travel to Phnom Penh and personally evaluate progress of investigations,” said Katsumi Funakoshi, general manager of public relations department for ASICS.

“The decision to re-open or continue to work with this factory would be considered after the result of investigation by ourselves, by the third party and by the government,” he added.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, dismissed concerns that the building as a whole might be considered unsafe as it was only the illegally constructed level that collapsed.

“Just like in a house, when you build a small roof for the dog, and if that small roof collapses, you will not suggest that the whole house is going to collapse,” Mr. Sou Ieng said.

Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim sent a letter to provincial governor Ou Sam Ourn on Friday demanding a halt to all ongoing construction at Wing Star Shoes. Mr. Chhun Lim also appealed on the provincial authorities to hold the unnamed construction company responsible for the incident and to check on all future building projects in the province.

Mr. Sam Ourn confirmed receipt of the letter Sunday, and said he would be inspecting the factory again today. “I sent a notice to the factory and we also created a committee to inspect all the factories in the province,” he said.

But workers on Sunday expressed fear over returning to the site of the collapse. “If a lot of people go back to work, I will follow them,” employee Nget Savry, 18, said. “But, I am very worried about my safety.”

Labor rights activists criticized the factory for re-opening too hastily and said that a proper inspection must be carried out in order to ensure the workers’ safety.

“There should be a proper documentation; there should be ex­perts at the construction site to show the workers [it is safe],” said Moeun Tola, labor program head of Community Legal Education Center, which advocates for workers. “The authorities and stakeholders need to make a strong commitment that the building is safe for them to work in.”

Recalling the commitment the social affairs minister had made on the day of the collapse for a full-fledged investigation, David Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based trade union advocacy organization, said workers should not be forced to return to work so soon after the tragedy.

He also said that the paying of money to families of the dead and injured over the weekend was “insulting.”

“There’s the criminal aspect of an illegal construction that resulted in the death of workers,” Mr. Welsh said. “To think that they are offering money to families over the weekend to prevent the criminal suit is ludicrous and frankly should not stand.”

According to Ms. Hour, the factory representative, nine of the injured workers who went to Calmette Hospital had received $1,700 each. Victims with minor injuries at the district referral hospital received $550 each, she said.

“For each dead victim, the factory donated $6,500 to each family to hold the funeral,” Ms. Hour said. “We wanted to negotiate compensation with them but right now, they don’t want to talk. They need time.”

Nuon Chorvy, the wife of 22-year-old Rim Saroeun and mother of a newborn, confirmed the donation and said her family has not decided yet on whether to file an official complaint against the factory.

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