VIHEAR SUOR COMMUNE, Kandal province – On this sparsely populated prairie about 40 km northeast of Phnom Penh, the transformation from farmland to industrial haven has begun.
Exactly 7,777 hectares of land has been carved out of the countryside by development company 7NG, which has built 20 factories on the land and has plans for 180 more.
The factory city, Borei Santepheap III, already employs some 38,000 people, according to 7NG, which says it will provide an alternative for Cambodians looking to leave the country for work, including more than 600,000 migrant workers who have crossed the border for jobs in Thailand.
“What we have here is the product of two years work and $500 million,” said Choeun Sothun, deputy director of administration for Borei Santepheap III, which literally translates to Peace City III.
“Now, we have electricity and running water, and we are planning to build schools and a hospital in the city, too,” Mr. Sothun said.
According to 7NG’s plans, the city will eventually have asphalt roads, skyscrapers and luxury villas, a far cry from the current state of the mostly arid land through which farmers still herd their cattle.
Mr. Sothun said that wet-season flooding had brought an influx of people from around the country to the 7NG site, which now has a population of about 1,000.
Most of the new arrivals are already working in factories owned by firms from China, Korea and Vietnam, which have been the biggest investors in the 7NG project and control the majority of the 20 factories doing business.
At the 7NG offices in Borei Santepheap III, scale models show rows of nondescript apartment blocks the company is hoping to fill as demand for labor increases with the completion of more factories.
A recent study by the agriculture NGO CEDAC predicted that ventures such as Borei Santepheap III were set to benefit considerably as farmers are forced to look elsewhere to earn a living.
The survey of more than 35,000 households predicted that over the next 10 years, up to 17 percent of the country’s farmers would completely abandon agriculture as an income source, and up to 44 percent would look to diversify into other sectors for their primary income.
In a report released last year, the International Labor Organization said up to 300,000 new workers are entering the workforce each year. “Yet, the domestic labor market still generates limited employment opportunities and relatively low wages, compared to opportunities that exist abroad,” the report says.
Kandal provincial governor Phay Bunchhoeun said Tuesday that the 7NG project would be a boon to the area and that he had lobbied locals to join the wave of workers to the area.
Mr. Bunchhoeun said that while local government has no direct involvement in the 7NG project, he had attempted to talk his constituents out of going abroad for work, where Cambodians are vulnerable to abuse by illegal smugglers and employers.
“I have helped spread this news to the people, asking them to come and work here, because it’s much better than migrating to work abroad,” Mr. Bunchhoeun said.
The governor said that his only concerns were how to deal with waste produced by the factories and rising crime as the rural area urbanized.
At Borei Santepheap III on Tuesday, a number of new residents said they were mostly happy with their decision to settle at the site.
Chhay Sokoeurn, 32, who moved from Prey Veng province with her husband and two daughters about three months ago, said life had improved at the 7NG site.
She said the couple had purchased their 3-by-18-meter plot of land for $3,000 and that her husband was working on one of the many construction projects at the site.
“It is better than back home,” she said. “My village is flooded, our rice fields don’t have any yield and here my husband can work.”
Though, as her daughters, aged 6 and 11, sat at her side, she offered one complaint.
“School and hospital are quite far from here—about a 30 minute drive. It would be great if we can have them here—it will give me more time to tend to my business” selling drinks and snacks, she said.
As an afternoon storm rolled in, Long Kong, a 71-year-old man who said he first came to Vihear Suor to herd buffalo at the age of 14, sat under a palm-frond hut weaving rope.
“It was all rice fields as far as the eye can see,” Mr. Kong said of the land around him. Now, two of his children and one grandchild work at the factories here.
“2014 is already this much different,” he said, with open fields behind him and factories in front. “What about 2025?”
“I often pray asking God not to let me die just yet. I want to see what this place will become.”
(Additional reporting by Chan Cheuk Yin)