Collapsed dreams of workers

Sihanoukville: When Sam Sok took a US$6-a-day job as a construction labourer in Sihanoukville, she knew it could be dangerous, but the deaths of 28 workers in a building collapse – with her nephew among the missing – has laid bare the risks many like her face to earn a living.She left her eight-year-old son with neighbours more than 100km away, one of thousands pushed by poverty seeking to cash in on the once sleepy seaside town’s Chinese-funded construction boom.

The work is mostly unregulated, low paid, often dangerous – and sometimes deadly.

“We do this because of money but now... we are afraid that we might meet the same unfortunate end,” the 32-year-old said.

“We work in fear now,” she said, from a hospital in Sihanoukville, where she was searching for her missing nephew.

Many were buried in their sleep when the Chinese-owned building – which was still under construction – crumbled before dawn on Saturday, and she fears her nephew was among them.

Like most migrant workers, the labourers lived in the structure they were building, having travelled far from home to earn a bit of cash to get by.

Cambodia’s per capita GDP has climbed in recent years as the economy slowly shifts from agricultural to industrial – with many workers now finding work in the garment and services sector – and opportunities in the construction sector are multiplying quickly.

But the World Bank still classifies about a third of the country as “near poor”, and the average annual income is around US$1,380 (RM5,709), lower than many of its Mekong neighbours.

Chinese investment has helped propel the shift away from agriculture, pouring money into new roads, new ports and new buildings across Cambodia, a strategically important South-East Asian ally for Beijing.

But that building frenzy has also sparked concerns about sub-standard safety regulations in a country where most of Cambodia’s 200,000 construction workers have few legal protections.

The majority are day-labourers, don’t belong to unions, and aren’t protected by minimum wage laws, according to the International Labour Organization.

Building owners often flout safety measures, taking shortcuts that could lead to accidents, said Kong Athit, secretary-general of the Cambodian Labour Confederation.

“It’s the responsibility of the owners and the government that they must take a serious pre-check before allowing any construction of a building to start,” Athit told journalists. — AFP

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