korng pisey district, Kompong Speu province – In Snom Krapoue commune, where the voter registration rate is an impressive 96 percent, the factory workers came home to vote Sunday.
“There are a lot of factory workers here, at least several hundred,” said Srey Sam of the commune election committee. “And most of them have come back to vote.”
At the Svay Tiep Primary School polling station, it was easy to pick them out of the crowd: The factory workers were the ones in newer clothes, sparkling earrings and maybe a touch of lipstick.
Chham Savon, 21, climbed into a truck Saturday in Chak Angre Leu with 10 friends from other factories to make the trip home to Kompong Speu.
She said the trip home “was a lot of fun,” although expensive. She scraped together the 10,000 riel (about $2.50) roundtrip fare from savings plus a loan from a friend.
Chham Savon works at the USA Fully Field Garment Co. “I’m voting today because I want a better standard of living in the commune,” she said. “We need better roads, and we need jobs.”
She said that if someone would build a factory in Snom Krapoue, garment workers could live closer to their families, instead of crowding four to a room in barracks-style housing in Phnom Penh.
At mid-morning, Chham Savon was waiting for the crowds to thin before attempting to vote. The scene inside the school compound was festive, as several hundred people chatted, laughed, scolded children and bought snacks from a half-dozen vendors.
Doors to each of the two polling stations were jammed with people determined to be next in line; those who had voted had to shove their way out, their wet inky fingers held over their heads.
“The only problem we have had is people pushing each other to vote first,” Srey Sam said.
They are farmers, said a co-worker, and they don’t like to stand in line.
Maun Srey Touch, 21, had thought about registering in Phnom Penh, where she works at the Da Joo Cambodia Ltd factory. But it made more sense to go home to vote, she decided, because she plans to live in her village again some day. “And if I voted [in Phnom Penh], the leaders here wouldn’t help me,” she said.
Other workers faced more problems when it came to organizing a trip home. In Dangkao district’s Chaom Chao commune, Chi Gennai, 20, did not return to Kompong Cham to vote, although her sister did.
“Now it costs about 20,000 riel (about $5) for a round-trip,” explained the Wearwel Cambodia Ltd employee. So many people wanted to travel home to vote that the prices increased substantially, she said.
She had registered in Kompong Cham and planned to go, but got sick and needed to spend extra money on medicine, she said.
Chi Gennai lives with several hundred other factory workers in a cluster of cement buildings off Veng Sreng Road near the Canadia Industrial Park.
More than half went to their home provinces to vote, said Siem Vibol, 22, as he scrubbed a pan outside his cubicle. He had recently found employment at the large Universal Apparel (Cambodia) Ltd factory, about 300 meters away.
He was planning to vote in Phsar Depot 2 commune, where he lived during the registration period.
Chaom Chao is a rapidly growing area of large factories interspersed with tiny clusters of worker housing and the small businesses that cater to them.
It is a hard life, said 32-year-old construction worker Seang Sokha, who shares a room with his wife, Ma Sokha, a worker at the nearby Wearwel factory.
“We pay $20 for rent, and every three days we must buy a jar of water,” he said. “In a month, that’s 150,000 riel (about $3.80),” in addition to their costs for transportation, food, clothing, and medicine.
Ma Sokha was pleased to learn last week that she could get a $20 loan from her company to help pay their way home to Kratie province, where they are registered.
She took the loan, but when she went to make arrangements, she found it wasn’t enough to cover what it would cost them both to go. “We wanted to vote, but we don’t have the money,” she said.
Her husband said he didn’t want to reveal who he would have voted for, “but I’d want them to help the factory workers and other people earn higher salaries,” he said.
“We cannot live on such small wages,” he said.