In Cambodia, informal construction workers are still reaching for the labour rights won by garment workers

In Cambodia, informal construction workers are still reaching for the labour rights won by garment workers

Construction workers stand in front of a cement truck on the site of the Hong Kong-listed NagaCorp’s third casino project in Phnom Penh on 10 March 2022.

(Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

Since her husband was knocked down by a co-worker carrying metal bars around a gated community construction site in Phnom Penh, Chum Makara says she has to take on additional jobs – washing dishes, doing laundry for neighbours – in addition to her usual tasks as a construction site support worker.

“Right now, the company offers three or four days [of work] a week, and I take any work they can give me,” she tells Equal Times, adding that she only earns US$5 per day for carrying bricks and cleaning up around the site.

When her husband was injured more than a year ago, the 42-year-old from Prey Veng province in south-eastern Cambodia took photos of his wounds from the health centre, as instructed by her boss. She even took pictures of his new stitches, after doctors removed a metal plate from his arm earlier this year, which was placed there because of the accident. But the family never received any compensation.

Makara has heard from a union representative that she should be able to receive compensation and more benefits, but after months of speaking with the union she can’t yet get membership and the negotiation support it could offer. She thinks it is largely because she isn’t directly employed by Borey Lim Chheanghak, a gated community developer, but instead by a subcontractor.

“In my opinion, it’s not fair, it’s not right,” she remarks, adding that she has had to take out a loan to pay for her husband’s hospital debts.

Multiple layers of subcontractors

Though Cambodian unions and labour organisations have achieved some success advocating for decent work in the garment industry, other workers, especially in informal and subcontracted industries like construction, are struggling to gain those same benefits, from minimum wages to safety protections.

Cambodia’s garment, footwear and textile industry is one of the country’s biggest export earners, employing more than one million workers across 1,200 factories. The sector has high levels of union representation, partly as a result of the requirements needed to access the US market in the early 2000s, with multiple unions often represented in one factory. But across the construction sector, workers have fewer chances of even starting to organise a union, says Sou Chhlonh, vice president for the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC).

The 8,000-member BWTUC’s primary focus is on construction workers and building material factory workers, namely brick and cement makers. But Chhlonh says that they face unique challenges in increasing their membership. Construction workers like Makara are able to join, but they have little chance of getting an established local union because they’re often subcontracted, sometimes under multiple layers of subcontractors, and often to employers who never set up legal companies, making their businesses hard to trace.

Brick factories operate in an entirely different fashion: workers take loans from a factory boss and then work off their debt. As a result, the employer holds a lot of power over workers who fear losing their jobs and being unable to pay back their debt.

Cambodia’s construction and real estate sectors, which constitute about 15 per cent of GDP, are heavily reliant on foreign direct investment. Foreign construction companies – from the French conglomerate Vinci to Chinese state-owned enterprises like the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation – are involved in Cambodian projects, where both Cambodian and foreign workers struggle to demand adequate pay and representation. Even if foreign companies have higher standards of reporting in their home countries, their use of subcontracting practices in Cambodia makes it harder to hold them to account when workers’ rights are violated in the country.

Makara, for example, says that she was aware that she was subcontracted to work under other bosses, but that she still doesn’t understand why she has to pay for her husband’s injuries. Soon after the accident, she started meeting with BWTUC representatives to discuss some of her grievances. She told them that she wants health care and other benefits like paid holidays, and BWTUC representatives told her that she is legally entitled to receive them. “But we don’t get them,” she says. When Makara brought this up with her boss, he told her that she will only get paid for the days that she works. With few other job options, she feels she has no choice but to accept this unlawful arrangement.

Uneven protection between sectors

Chhlonh says the BWTUC tries to gain members in order to learn about their conditions, but that there’s still so much that is unknown about the sector: subcontracted construction workers move locations frequently, for example, while brick factories are difficult to access. Even after the union helped expose rampant child labour and debt bondage in the brick kiln industry, they’re still trying to understand how workers pay back their debts, he says.

Where BWTUC organisers are unable to set up a union, Chhlonh says they at least try to organise information sessions about workers’ rights and Cambodian labour law, as well as other training for workers. One of the union’s more recent successes involved a meeting in October between about 60 brick factory workers from kilns on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, their employers and a Labour Ministry official, in order to urge factory owners to register their workers for the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which provides health care access to workers in Cambodia.

“The biggest thing is that the Labour Ministry official said, ‘Wow I didn’t know about workers’ lack of access to the NSSF,’ ” Chhlonh recalls, to which he replied: “Please ask them, they are here.” Within a few days, some of the workers reported that their bosses had them fill out applications for the cards. “We need to push [the government] more but this is a good example of the kind of work we need to do,” Chhlonh says. However, he adds that BWTUC’s reach is only as strong as its union membership. “If our members are weak, we cannot advance the issues that affect them.”

Cambodia’s garment unions have been able to negotiate modest wage increases every year since 2014, and for the last decade, the country has hosted Better Work, a labour and compliance inspection programme created by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to facilitate relationships between factory owners, clothing brands and workers.

Better Work has charted improvements in garment workers’ livelihoods as well as their perception of their careers.

But Chhlonh says that these principles have not been applied to the construction industry, or informal workers in other sectors such as tourism and transportation. “It’s been many years where just the garment and footwear workers have the minimum wage,” Chhlonh says, referencing the monthly base salary of US$194 as of this year. Workers in the construction industry, by contrast, earn between US$5 and US$15 per day, depending on various factors including skill level and gender. “What about the other sectors?”

In addition, during the Covid-related slowdowns, garment and tourism workers whose jobs were suspended were able to receive stipends of US$40 to cover some of their lost wages, with the expectation that their employers would also make contributions. “During Covid, the government provided support for the formal sector, but the informal sector had nothing: construction, brick kilns, nothing. This is inhumane,” he says. “A humane response would address all workers’ problems together.”

Heightened safety risks

Chhlonh says workers in his industry not only face unsatisfactory wages and labour protections, but that they also face heightened safety risks, despite government efforts to increase labour inspections in construction.

After 28 workers died in a skyscraper construction collapse in Cambodia’s coastal boomtown Sihanoukville in June 2019, Prime Minister Hun Sen immediately called for more inspections in the industry. However, some six months later, another 36 people died following the collapse of another construction site in Kep province in the south of the country, including six children living on the site.

“The government says they have 332 construction inspectors, but how can we trust them? We only see the number; where are the results?” Chhlonh asks.

Cambodia’s Labour Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour tells Equal Times that he is aware that it is harder to unionise construction workers and obtain rights for them because of their subcontracted and sometimes seasonal status. He also notes that construction groups are not always officially registered companies, making them harder to track. When asked about the progress of construction site labour inspections, Sour says the Labour Ministry is working with other government agencies. However, he did not expand on their progress so far.

BWTUC is one of eight industry-specific unions affiliated to the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC) to advocate its agenda and other unions’ concerns to the government.

CLC president Ath Thorn says the national centre has attempted to educate its leaders, primarily by hosting training sessions for representatives and local organisers on their labour rights while strengthening its legal team’s capacity to defend organisers. Thorn says they also attempt to advocate for improving the laws and policies around union negotiations and the calculations of benefits, admitting that while the government has made small improvements to Cambodia’s social protections, working conditions in the country are still sub-par.

“With our affiliates, we try to challenge and create debate at all [levels] among our workers: local, provincial and national. We try to engage employers and the government to improve working conditions and social protections,” he affirms. He also notes that trade unions are currently under a lot of pressure from the government, which is using Covid-era restrictions to break up strikes. “If we build a campaign or build a strike, they will use the law against us.”

However, Khun Tharo, programme manager for the workers’ rights group Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central), urges the CLC to focus less on training and awareness programmes and spend more time putting pressure on the government to comply with international law and improve social protections. “For an affiliate, what should be done [is] to use the platform [and] the power of CLC to have more influence within the government when it comes to a national policy,” he says.

Union repression

The CLC lost around 50 per cent of its members during the first year of the pandemic, according to Thorn, who blames the difficulty in settling labour disputes during the pandemic and mass job losses, which affected the ability of workers to pay union dues. Although the CLC’s membership is currently 30 per cent lower than it was pre-pandemic, it is trying to recruit new members and start new local union branches: “Now we continue to improve the organising, training and also settle dispute resolution [issues] to avoid … the things that cause us to lose members.”

Chhlonh, from BWTUC, is also worried about the future of independent unions in Cambodia, adding that it’s becoming harder to operate, citing the ongoing strike by the Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of NagaWorld Workers, and the repression they have faced as a notable example. In February three union activists were arrested, joining the eight LRSU union leaders arrested in January for demanding NagaWorld – a powerful, Hong Kong-listed Phnom Penh casino – reinstate more than 200 sacked union members and negotiate with the LRSU to restore trade union rights within the company.

Chhlonh called the strike, which began in December, very professional, saying that he has learned important lessons from their tactics and agenda. But workers have been met with resistance from the Cambodian government since the first day of the strike, which later devolved into arrests and violence against striking workers, and has more recently resulted in the registration of a new yellow union, the Union for Rights and Common Interests of NagaWorld Employees, backed by NagaWorld and the Labour Ministry.

The unionist says that he believes that all workers should advance together, whether they’re subcontracted construction workers or unionised employees of a Hong Kong-listed casino. “[The NagaWorld strike] is a good model for independent unions, but if they are losing their capability or lose this case, the other independent unions can’t do anything.”

With additional reporting by Meanrith Mam.

This article was produced with the support of the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC and the Directorate-General for Belgian Development Cooperation.