An early-morning fire in Pur Senchey district Monday completely gutted a garment factory that made jeans for U.S. retailer Kmart, killing one Chinese supervisor and injuring three others. Police said Monday afternoon that they are still searching for the cause of the blaze.
Security guards on night duty for the Chinese-owned Chang Sheng Garment factory said they spotted thick black smoke rising over the back of the factory at about 4:40 a.m. and raised the alarm. They said about 10 Chinese supervisors and a Cambodian cook regularly slept in the factory overnight.
“Then in four or five minutes I saw the fire—it spread too fast,” said Son Vanthy, one of the guards.
By the time fire trucks arrived at about 5:30 a.m., he said the fire had already ripped through about half the factory.
Hel Phalla, the factory’s head of administration, said three of the men inside suffered minor burns during their escape. Yang Shi Xiong, 42, a quality control supervisor for the factory, failed to make it out.
“He died because he could not escape and his body was found in front of the bathroom,” said Ms. Phalla, who was helping police fill out an incident report at the Stung Meanchey pagoda, where the dead man’s body was being kept.
By about 10 a.m. at the factory, smoke and ash were still swirling around the gutted and charred building. Inside only rubble and twisted metal remained. Fire trucks worked to extinguish the last few piles of rubble that were still on fire.
Phnom Penh Fire Department chief Neth Vantha, who came to inspect the scene, said the fire was mostly over by about 9 a.m. He declined to comment on the cause of the blaze.
“We don’t know yet what was the reason for the fire, but the cook said he saw smoke coming out of a nearby room,” he said.
Mr. Vantha said fire trucks had struggled to reach the factory because roads around the factory had been blocked off to large vehicles by concrete pylons. Once firefighters arrived at the scene, their work was slowed by a lack of a nearby water source. He also said those at the factory ought to be trained on how to respond to fires themselves.
“People have to be on high alert and know how to take measures by themselves when a fire starts, because we cannot offer 100 percent service, only 40 or 50 percent,” he said. “If people know how to take measures, the fire can be stopped.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has on multiple occasions in recent years encouraged factories to purchase their own fire trucks rather than rely on the municipality’s ill-equipped firefighting force.
Several of the factory’s Chinese managers refused to speak with reporters at the Chang Sheng factory Monday. Ms. Phalla, the administration chief, said the factory owner was in Shanghai and would be returning today. She said the factory had insurance but could not recall the name of the provider and did not know how the owner would be handling the wages for its roughly 850 workers.
Several dozen of the factory’s workers were gathered quietly around the front and back gates of the factory watching the fire crews extinguish the last few flames.
Chea Heang said she had been sewing jeans at the factory since 2009. She said staff had conducted a fire drill just last week and that she was satisfied with her working conditions. She worried about finding another job.
“I’m sad. I’ve lost my job and I don’t know what to do next,” said Ms. Heang, who was expecting her next paycheck to arrive on the 10th of next month. “Now I’m worried about whether the factory can pay us.”
“It’s going to be hard to find another job now because I don’t know where to go,” said Chhorn Nainy, who has worked at the factory for the past two years.
Ms. Nainy also worried about getting paid for the last few weeks, but sympathized with the factory owners.
“I’m sorry about the fire because the workers and bosses had a good relationship,” she said. “If they pay us I will be happy. If not, I don’t know what to do. I can see that the factory burned down.”
The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union represents some of the factory’s workers. Its vice president, Kong Athit, said that regardless of how the fire was started, the factory was obligated to pay its workers something.
If it plans to reopen, he said, the factory and workers would have to negotiate some percentage of their standard monthly pay during the time off. If the factory decides to shut down for good, however, he said it would have to pay them for the month up to the day of the fire plus severance.
But Mr. Athit said past experience did not bode well for the workers.
“I am worried because usually the factory refuses to pay. It [Monday’s fire] is similar to the problem with the June factory,” he said.
In March 2011, a fire destroyed the June Textile Factory in Phnom Penh, which had about 4,000 workers. The owners refused to pay their employees severance and ignored a non-binding decision by the Arbitration Council. The owners finally agreed to pay the workers after several months of protests.
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