Threat of Death Comes With Construction Work

The entrance to the workers’ quarters at the construction site of the 13-story Naga-owned hotel, next to the casino, is through a break in a corrugated metal fence surrounding the building site.

Cement steps caked with mud and trash lead to a corridor thick with smoke from small charcoal grills.

On Tuesday, it was impossible to see more than a few meters beyond the wood and corrugated-metal homes, and into the cavernous cement shell of the under-construction luxury resort.

Flies swarmed as workers’ wives and mothers cooked food, and a gaggle of scruffy children ran among makeshift rooms slapped together from the wood and metal panels. The smell of rotting trash overpowered the stifling smoke.

This is where the laborers live. Where they work, the conditions can be worse, even lethal.

On March 16, worker Seng Savein, 25, plunged to his death from the unfinished 12th floor of the hotel , said a Tonle Bassac police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to release the information. On May 8, worker Phoeun Ven, 19, was electrocuted.

Still, workers on the site Tues­day said they were lucky to be there.

In an industry that operates largely outside regulations, and draws workers from a vast pool of the mobile, inexperienced and often desperately poor people, these workers feel lucky that they have an employer who will pay if they lose life or limb on the job.

“With this company, if you get injured they will pay medical fees,” Sok Touch, 32, said. “And if someone dies they pay their family money.”

Sok Touch, a carpenter from Prey Veng province, started working at the site three years ago and now earns $2.25 a day. He claimed that four people have died at the site in the last three years and that there are many “slight” injuries.

“Sometimes we step on a nail, or someone cuts a finger, or needs stitches after a wooden beam falls on their head.”

Workers next door, at the site of what will become the new Foreign Ministry, envy those at Naga.

“If we compare, this is a small company, but that is a big company and they pay more compensation,” said Ky Kim, 28, who came from Kompong Cham province three weeks ago to work. He earns $1.50 a day. His brother-in-law, who has been working there for a year, earns $2.50 a day.

A worker known as Sim fell from the roof of the new Foreign Ministry last week and broke his back, said Ky Kim’s sister, Chi Hen, 30. The company paid only $300 in compensation, she said, and the man was forced to return to Kompong Cham.

By contrast, police and workers said the family of the man who fell to his death at Naga was paid $3,000 and the family of the man who was electrocuted received $1,000.

Naga public affairs representative Michael Nen said Tuesday that such things were the responsibility of the contractor, CCAG Contracting. However, Michael Nen’s secretary, Ravy Keo, also said Tuesday that both workers were paid $3,000 compensation, which is the policy of the construction company.

Ravy Keo directed questions about CCAG to a man named Chong, who she said was the company’s general manager.

“We are only the subcontractor,” he said when contacted. “We are not very clear on the issues. You had better ask a Naga official.”

As the body count mounts, Huy Han Song, director of the Department of Occupational Health under the Ministry of Social Affairs, lamented Wednesday that the company had in the past denied his officials access to the site.

His department inspects workplaces to see if they meet safety and health standards.

“The owner of the big construction company is very powerful and the contractor is from outside [the country] and is very insolent,” Huy Han Song said.

When inspectors go to large construction sites where, Huy Han Song claimed, most of the serious accidents occur, they are denied access or can’t get anyone to talk.

There is nothing in the labor law, passed in 1997, that dictates at what point, or after how many fatalities or injuries, a construction company should be punished or construction site closed, said Ouk Samvithyea, director of the Department of Social Security, also under the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Ouk Samvithyea’s department keeps track of workplace injuries and deaths, but data is limited because they rely on companies to report such accidents. But there is nothing in the labor law forcing companies to file reports.

International Labor Organization consultants are currently working with Ouk Samvithyea on developing a social security fund employers pay into that pays workers when they are hurt on the job.

But for now, the workers are on their own and must rely on the benevolence of employers.

“If we get sick, we cannot buy medicine. If we are absent one day, we don’t get paid,” said Ky Kim, at the ministry construction site. “We live in very difficult conditions, but we have no choice.”

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