Phnom Penh Trash Collectors Dance for Demands

Piles of garbage festered on the streets of Phnom Penh on Tuesday as hundreds of workers employed by the city’s refuse collection company, Cintri, continued to strike for higher wages and better working conditions.

At the company’s truck depot in Dangkao district Tuesday morning, more than 100 of the striking workers gathered in front of a speaker system blaring out songs, vowing to dance on until their demands, which include a pay increase, a health bonus, overtime for working Sundays and free time on national holidays, are met.

Garbage builds up in front of Phsar Kap Ko market in Phnom Penh on Tuesday as staff at Cintri, the city's sole refuse collection company, continued their strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (Siv Channa)
Garbage builds up in front of Phsar Kap Ko market in Phnom Penh on Tuesday as staff at Cintri, the city’s sole refuse collection company, continued their strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (Siv Channa)

“We will keep protesting until we get a resolution,” said 41-year-old Leang Pisey, a garbage truck driver who has worked for Cintri for seven years and has been demonstrating at the truck depot since the strike began on Sunday.

Workers at the dancing protest, all dressed in company uniforms and some sipping cold beer, said that they didn’t want their demonstration to turn violent.

“We don’t want to be violent, we just want a higher salary,” said Mr. Pisey, as dozens of fellow Cintri employees shouted in agreement and gyrated to the amplified tunes from the sound system.

And, until those demands are met, garbage will remain on Phnom Penh’s streets, the workers said.

Despite the peaceful nature of the strike action, Tuesday evening, following another round of failed negotiations, Cintri’s Deputy Director Seng Chamroeun warned that if the dissenting waste disposal workers continue to protest they will soon face the weight of the law.

“If they continue to strike, then the authorities could be forced to take action according to the law,” Mr. Chamroeun said, declining to specify what type of action he had in mind.

“The workers are demanding that their salaries be raised to $150. It is over the company’s capabilities,” Mr. Chamroeun added.

“We already increased their salaries from $20 in 2002—nowadays, some workers have salaries of around $100 per month,” he said.

Mr. Chamroeun said that some staff want to continue working but are being prevented from doing so by those picketing the depot. Prak Sokha, a representative of the strikers, estimated that more than 400 of the company’s almost 1,000 staff in Phnom Penh are taking part in the strike.

Workers gathered outside the Cintri truck depot Tuesday said that a wage increase more than 10 years ago is not enough to survive on today.

“I have a wife and three children to support, a house and electricity to pay for. I need more money to pay for all of this,” Mr. Pisey said.

Of about a dozen female workers who joined Tuesday’s protest, 65-year-old Sok Samoeun, a single mother of three who now acts as guardian for her three grandchildren, complained that her wage simply isn’t enough.

“I have worked for Cintri for 11 years. I will not go back until they give me a better wage,” she said.

Mr. Chamroeun said that Cintri would increase workers’ salaries “as much as possible” to stop the strike at his company, which he said “affects public order in the city.”

Mom Sarorn, president of the Trade Union Federation for Increasing Khmer Employees Lifestyles, said, however, “Workers will keep on striking until their demands are met.”

With piles of pungent trash rotting in the streets of the capital, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Chan Som An said City Hall would continue to negotiate with the striking workers until they reach an agreement. If talks fail, however, it will be up to each district in the city to sort out its own trash disposal, Mr. Som An said.

“If they don’t go back to work, we don’t know what to do. It could be that each district has to look after itself,” he said.

In 2002, Cintri, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Cintec, sealed a deal with City Hall that gave it a monopoly on the collection and disposal of Phnom Penh’s waste. But in those years the firm, and its exclusive contract, have received stiff criticism for often doing a less than adequate job in a city of more than 2 million inhabitants.

With garbage piling up since Sunday, people in the city were starting to feel the effects of the strike.

“When the workers used to collect all the garbage I had lots of customers. Now I don’t have as many because of the bad smell,” said Van Sokha, 53, the owner of a roadside cafe on Street 147 that currently has a large mound of garbage next to its entrance.

Shop owner Pouk Pheng agreed: “I think the company should increase their salary, otherwise in a week or two the city could be a dump.”

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