Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Some 2,000 Workers In Quandary Over Livelihood After Shoe Factory Razed To The Ground

R.G Footwear in Kandal province went up in flames on Tuesday leaving more than 2,000 workers without jobs, March 20, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
R.G Footwear in Kandal province went up in flames on Tuesday leaving more than 2,000 workers without jobs, March 20, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

More than 2,000 workers of R.G Footwear in Kandal province are worried about losing their jobs after the factory they worked in was destroyed by fire on Tuesday. They hope that the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training will find a solution so that they have a job regardless of the factory’s continuity.

Recounting the incident, production operator Leang Sou, 48, said the fire was not very big at first with workers trying to douse it with fire extinguishers. But it suddenly got out of control and spread quickly. The building was completely engulfed in flames before firemen arrived.

Sou alleged that the factory “did not have a proper fire prevention system that complied with safety standards” as only fire extinguishers were available.

“There was an explosion. When it came into contact with the fragrant gasoline [stored in tanks for shoe cleaning], the fire spread uncontrollably. We only had fire extinguishers to put out the flames,” said Sou. “The fire truck arrived about an hour later.” 

R.G Footwear produces shoes for Brunt Footwear in the US and Puma of Germany.

The factory used to supply shoes to VF Corp. However, verification with labels and representatives revealed that VF Corp stopped sourcing from them three years ago.

Having worked there for almost 10 years, Sou was concerned about his livelihood after the fire, which has left more than 2,000 workers without a job. They are not sure whether the factory would reopen and if they would receive their salary as stipulated by the labor law.

“My first concern is that I need money to support the family because my family depends on me. Another big problem is my bank loan. If I lose my job, I won’t have an income,” said Sou.

So far, there is no official response on the workers’ plight from the ministry, but the officers have met with the factory owners and other relevant authorities to discuss the matter.

Sou hopes that the owner will provide a solution as well as inform the workers whether the factory will be temporarily or permanently closed.

“Workers insist on being informed if the factory will close and if they will be paid their salaries,” he said. “I want the factory to pay us our salary and then I will find a new job.” 

R.G Footwear in Kandal province went up in flames on Tuesday leaving more than 2,000 workers without jobs, March 20, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Another worker, Chim Sophea, 42, said the factory is completely damaged, and the authorities are removing the charred debris. Just before the fire, there was a short circuit which caused an explosion, he recalled. While there were fire extinguishers to put out the fire, it became uncontrollable soon after.

Sophea felt that without specific measures put in place, the same problem will happen again, hoping that other factories strengthen their fire safety system to ensure the safety of the business and workers. “We want our factory owners to enhance the fire prevention system,” he said.

While he is afraid of losing his job, Sophea said safety standards were poor and posed a huge risk to workers’ safety, seeing how several factories were razed by fire recently.

According to him, the company had asked for a week to inspect and assess the damage to see if the factory can open again. However, he remains worried that if the factory closes, he will lose his income.

“My concern is that without a job, I am going to struggle paying the bank, house rent and supporting my family,” Sophea said.

When CamboJA contacted R.G Footwear using the number found on the open corporate website, the person who answered the phone said he had not  worked at the factory for almost five years.

The man, who declined to be named, expressed regret that the factory he worked in burned down, asserting that it “does have a fire protection system because it produces for a big brand”. “But I don’t know why it met a fate like this.”

In early January 2024, a fire broke out at Yida garment factory in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, killing one woman and injuring 20 workers. 

Labor and Vocational Training Minister Heng Sour issued a new guideline on strengthening fire prevention and occupational safety and health measures for factory workers, following that incident.

Katta Orn, a ministry spokesperson, said officials visited the site after receiving information that the factory was on fire, with police confirming that the fire was caused by a “power line explosion”.

Orn confirmed that the ministry discussed with the factory owners and workers’ representatives to come up with a solution to protect the interests of the workers and provide new jobs for them.

“The National Employment Agency will go to the site to provide employment opportunities for those who want to work elsewhere. Those who want to wait [to return to the same work] after the factory reopens, that’s their business,” he said. 

He added that the affected workers can continue to use their National Social Security Fund card to get their health checks or treatment at partner hospitals like normal.

The ministry and other government departments have issued instructions to factories to take extra fire precautions. “The ministry continues to monitor and disseminate information to factory owners and workers to prevent fires,” Orn said.

A security guard points at the factory which caught fire on Tuesday this week, March 20, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Touch Seur, president of the Federation of Free Trade Unions of Cambodia, told CamboJA that based on her observation since the beginning of this year, several factories had closed down or been destroyed by fire. This adversely affected workers, who risk losing their jobs, thereby impacting the household income.

On this basis, Seur urged the ministry and relevant partners to identify the challenges and prevent fires by strengthening the law to ensure the safety of workers, including those in the garment sector.

“We are worried about workers losing their income and benefits, and feeling discouraged,” she said, sharing that several factories “do not seem to care too much about workers’ safety”.

“In my opinion, I have very little hope that this issue will change as we see that some of the factories operate in dilapidated factories. They don’t change or do repairs,” she said.