Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Workers face unpaid wages as pandemic, flooding stonewall construction activity

Construction workers offload materials at a worksite in Phnom Penh on November 8. Panha Chhorpoan
Construction workers offload materials at a worksite in Phnom Penh on November 8. Panha Chhorpoan
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Mech Sareoun had not been paid in months and was relying on small loans from his employer to support his family. The COVID-19 pandemic had adversely affected the construction sector and its nearly 150,000 workers. But, the construction worker, who lives in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, was heading for another economic shock last month.

Days of incessant rains in Phnom Penh in mid-October cause widespread flooding in the city, especially in Dangkor district. For four days, his family was stuck on the first floor of a stranger’s home and they were quickly running out of food.

His lack of income made sure that he could not find his own way out of the predicament and he was unaware of the government’s call and efforts to evacuate ahead of a storm.

“At first, we did not know where to go and or stay because I had no money to leave. We were so broke during the flood,” he said, adding that the family was rescued by military personnel.

A number of people were affected by the floods, but, as in Mech Saroeun’s case, their troubles were exacerbated by the economic effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic had dealt a heavy blow to Cambodia’s economy, which is headed for a recession this year.

Most affected by the pandemic have been the export-reliant sectors, such as garment, footwear and travel goods exports, and the construction sector, which is also dependent on foreign direct investment. While the government has announced monthly financial support for garment and tourism workers, though activists question the effectiveness of the rollout, construction workers have not seen any state aid.

Saroeun, who is from Svay Rieng province, was working on a home construction project in June and earning around $7.5 a day. He was promised his salary every two weeks but had not been paid so far. Instead, his employer is giving the construction worker small loans for his monthly livelihood.

“When I asked him for my pay he said he did not get money from the house owner, he told me to wait until it is finished,” he said.

Labor activists in the construction sector have pointed to persistent issues with low and unpaid wages, since the sector was given a boost with increases in foreign direct investment.

The slowdown in the sector, which the Asian Development Bank said was likely to continue, was so drastic that it brought worksites to a halt in Sihanoukville, which had seen a massive infusion of Chinese investments. Local media reports show that a number of Chinese workers too have been protesting unpaid wages and shrinking means to sustain their livelihoods in the coastal city.

Sok Kin, who is the president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, said there was no attention paid to workers in the sector, likely because it had seen higher wages than other sectors.

“Since I started working on this issue, we have continued to see cases about [unpaid] wages for construction workers. Sometimes they give up their wages and find new work,” he said.

He said the union was seeing consistent complaints of unpaid or irregularly-paid wages on a near-daily basis and that authorities needed to address these issues soon.

“Those who work on the issues don’t really care about workers’ welfare, their living conditions and wages, so the employers can do whatever they want,” Kin added.

Khun Tharo, a program coordinator of labor rights organization Central, said despite the massive amounts of investment and growth in the construction sector, there was still little done to improve worker conditions and protections.

“I think we really need to push for real enforcement within our existing laws to truly help workers,” Tharo said. “And the relevant ministries should sit together to ensure that both workers and employers are not exploited in their wages payments.”

A Land Management Ministry report from July showed that despite the pandemic there were 2,522 approved construction projects this year, totaling close to $4 billion. But, a number of the projects, more than 2,000, were municipal or provincial projects and valued at $740 million.

Seng Lot, a ministry spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.

Heang Nim, 29, is one of the construction workers who returned to Cambodia after working for 10 years in Thailand’s construction sector. The Preah Sihanouk native was working at a mall in Tuol Kork district in Phnom Penh.

With a dip in the sector’s economic prospects, Nim was told by his employers – Yuti Building Decoration Engineering Cambodia and Hong Ding Xing Tain Di – that they did not have the fund to pay him the $1,500 he was owed.

“They have not paid me for about three months,” Nim said. “They told me that the company had no money to pay me and did not have money to pay workers.”

Nim used to work in Thailand for 10 years but returned because of the high cost of living in Thailand. As an undocumented worker, he had already faced the similar issue of unpaid wages in Thailand.

“It is more difficult because we are undocumented so we sometimes had a problem of not being paid. But now even though I work in my own country it is still difficult,” he said.

Despite his bad experience at the Tuol Kork worksite, Nim found another job working at a 40-storey condominium and can only hope that he will get paid on time at the end of the month.

Back in Dangkor district, Saroeun said he had received donations of around $750 from the public, after a video of his rescue and financial situation was posted online. Much like Nim, Saroeun finds no other options but to continue working in the sector and to hope that he gets paid by construction companies.

“It is hard to get payment when working on a construction site,” said Saroeun. “I cannot leave the work otherwise I won’t get how much money I am owed.”

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