Inspection Gap Poses Safety Threat in Factories

In May last year, after two workers were killed when a ceiling collapsed at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kompong Speu province, then-Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng said ministries would “inspect the buildings of all factories in use.”

But on Tuesday, 17 months after the deadly factory collapse, the ground floor of the Chinese-owned Nishiku Enterprise factory in Takeo province caved in, injuring at least eight workers—again raising concerns about a lack of construction standards in Cambodia’s garment sector.

The continual risks posed by substandard construction work on factory buildings is highlighted in an unreleased report entitled Garment and Footwear Industry Fire and Building Safety Risk Profile, according to Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser for the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Better Factories Cambodia program.

Ms. Tucker said the report, which assessed nine factories and was compiled by the ILO together with the International Finance Corporation, details a lack of “rebar in the ground slabs” as a common threat to workers’ safety, which Ms. Tucker said was the reason for Tuesday’s collapse.

“That’s exactly what it was,” she said of the cause of the collapse, in which 50-meter-long section of the factory floor dropped some three meters into a water basin below.

“What the report also says is the absence of formal codes and regulations from the Cambodian government may be the primary factor [allowing for poor construction],” she said.

Better Factories, however, does not monitor construction of the factories that it works with. So despite its shoddy building, Nishiku Enterprise boasts a perfect score in Better Factories’ transparency index, which tracks working conditions, pay and safety measures.

Ms. Tucker said that Better Factories does not monitor factory construction due to the lack of a standard building code in the country.

“We monitor to the standard in the country and right now, there is no standard, so that’s the problem,” she said.

Dave Welsh, country director of the U.S.-based Solidarity Center, which advocates for workers’ rights, said Tuesday’s incident proved that promises from government officials regarding the strengthening of building standards were empty.

“You would have thought after a year and a half there would be dramatic improvements. On paper, I think the department of land and planning has additional responsibilities, but in terms of enforcement, I haven’t seen any improvement,” he said.

Mr. Welsh said the Better Factories policy of not monitoring the construction of factory buildings “leaves big gaps” in terms of safety standards.

“The ILO Better Factories program is tasked with monitoring factories, but it isn’t part of their remit—and they’re very open about this—to actually assess the physical integrity of factories,” he said.

“And so if the government isn’t doing it properly, it creates massive vulnerability for workers.”

Joel Preston, a labor consultant for the Community Legal Education Center, said factory owners and international brands should answer for such accidents, but that the Ministry of Labor ultimately shoulders the responsibility.

“We need to remember that the primary responsibility for occupational safety regulations of the garment industry lies with the government,” he said.

Vong Sovan, deputy director general of the Labor Ministry’s labor conflict department, said Wednesday that authorities planned to inspect factories this week as a result of Tuesday’s collapse.

“An expert committee is going to inspect not only the collapsed building but we will inspect others too,” he said.

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