A recent initiative by a coalition of local and international nonprofits will focus on educating garment industry workers and collective transport drivers in a bid to prevent traffic accidents, which remain a major safety concern for factory employees as they travel to and from work.
At an August 27 road safety workshop attended by trade union leaders and government and non-profit representatives, Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation Director Kim Pagna said that although road accidents are a serious challenge for all Cambodians, they have an outsized effect on garment and footwear industry workers.
“Traffic accidents are a major concern for workers, especially those working in the garment and footwear sectors,” Pagna said at the latest in a series of AIP Foundation-led safety training workshops in Phnom Penh.
He said that according to a recent National Social Security Fund report, in 2019, garment and footwear workers were involved in 698 road accidents, averaging 58 incidents per month and leading to 15 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
In many cases, injured workers are forced to stay either at home or in the hospital for days or months at a time, while those who become disabled due to an accident are unable to return to work and must be cared for full-time by their families, Pagna added.
“Although most accidents occur among workers traveling in their own vehicles [motorbikes], workers traveling by collective transportation continue to suffer while traveling to and from work,” he said. “On average, there is at least one such accident involving a truck carrying workers on a monthly basis, causing dozens of workers to be seriously injured in each case, and in some cases causing death.”
AIP Foundation has been contributing to efforts to improve traffic safety for garment industry employees since 2006, the director said, conducting education and training on traffic safety and distributing hundreds of thousands of helmets. The nonprofit also provides support and technical assistance to government institutions in an effort to reduce the number of road accidents.
The group’s current safety training program, called “Commuting Safety for Cambodian Workers” is funded by the United States Agency for International Development through the labor non-profit Solidarity Center and U.K.-based automobile research institution FIA Foundation.
Pagna said the initiative, launched in December, will take place over three years and will focus on three main ways to increase safety: disseminating research to create policy changes, cooperating with industry stakeholders, civil society, unions and drivers’ associations, and implementing measures directly targeting factory workers.
Pech Sopha, 38, a worker at Estext Factory, said she is four months pregnant and rides to work standing in the back of a truck along with more than 20 workers. She travels about 40 kilometers to reach the factory, from Kampong Speu province’s Kong Pisey district to Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district.
“Everyday, I ride in a truck with other workers and leave from home at 5:20am to arrive at the factory at around 6:30am,” Sopha said, adding that the travel costs her about 50,000 riel [$12.50] per month.
She said that although she has used collective transport to travel to Estext Factory for nearly 10 years, she has not been involved in a work-related traffic accident.
“I think that if the government and relevant institutions visit provinces to spread information about traffic laws and traffic safety for workers, it is good,” Sopha said. “Now, I am concerned about my safety because it is crowded [on the truck] but I have no choice.”
Phuong Leakhena, 36, secretary-general of the Workers Friendship Union Federation (WFUF), said garment and footwear employees who ride in the back of trucks are facing major risks on a daily basis.
“Their traffic safety is very challenging, especially along Veng Sreng Boulevard in Pur Senchey district,” Leakhena said.
She said that to avoid traffic accidents, unions need to cooperate with factories and government institutions to invite drivers to training courses on traffic safety, and explain to them how many people they can safely transport, and how to check that their vehicles meet safety standards.
“The government should be stricter on workers’ drivers because sometimes, some drivers do not have licenses,” Leakhena said.
Sot Chet, deputy secretary-general at the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) who also joined the workshop, said improving traffic safety knowledge was essential.
“Our Cambodian workers still need to learn about traffic safety for their transportation to go to work and back home,” Chet said.
CUMW often makes factory visits to provide workers and drivers with advice and information on traffic safety, he said, adding that the union encourages drivers to avoid drinking alcohol or using their mobile phones while driving.
Sao Vann, 53, a truck driver who has been transporting garment industry employees for nearly 10 years in Kampong Chhnang province, said he would support increased training for drivers and workers.
“I have driven a truck for 15 years, including transporting workers for almost 10 years but I have never been in a dangerous situation,” Vann said. “I request the authorities to offer more training courses on traffic safety and traffic law for workers and drivers.”
However, he said he has seen other garment trucks involved in traffic accidents in the past.
“To avoid traffic accidents, we must respect traffic laws; do not drink alcohol and do not use phones while we are driving and we must be careful all the time,” Vann said. “It is important, and we need to realize that many workers’ lives depend on us.”
Min Meanvy, a secretary of state of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and secretary-general of the National Road Safety Committee, who presided over the workshop, said the committee was currently educating garment and footwear workers in five factories in Phnom Penh, with more than 30 factories slated to receive training soon.
“On behalf of the National Road Safety Committee, I support this project of improving road safety for Cambodian workers and I appeal to participants of this workshop to please work as mentors to help inform and educate truck drivers to be,” she said. “Do not drive over the speed limit and understand the priorities of driving, do not race and do not overtake if it is risky.”
Pamela Wharton, deputy country program director for the Solidarity Center, said local workers face risks every day while commuting to work.
“Some ride on motorcycles – many of these workers have never received any driver training and some wear helmets that do not meet proper safety standards and they travel to and from work on busy roads which can be crowded with heavy vehicles and traffic,” Wharton said. “Some travel on collective transportation vehicles, some of which are not appropriate for transporting passengers – they can be overcrowded, and poorly maintained.”
She said that clear guidance and enforcement from the government is key to improving safety, and that economic incentives are also needed to encourage drivers to provide safer transport. Creating substantive change would require collaboration between the government, industry stakeholders, unions and civil society, Wharton added.
“I think we can agree that we all want workers to go to work each day and come home again safely,” she said.
Last month, two garment workers were killed and more than 30 others injured in a road accident in Svay Rieng province’s Svay Teap district, where the driver fled the scene.
A National Social Security Fund report released in January said that 50 garment workers died and 2,000 sustained injuries from traffic accidents last year.
The report said that 1,554 traffic accidents occurred last year, a decrease of 9 percent compared with 1,710 incidents in 2018. Although the overall number of accidents decreased last year, the number of deaths and injuries increased, it said.
According to the report, 2,006 workers were injured, 341 of whom sustained critical injuries, with the total number of injured workers up by 8 percent compared with 1,863 harmed in 2018.