Poor safety standards mean that traffic accidents continue to maim and kill employees
Garment worker Phork Lang has been working in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province for only seven months but has already been involved in two traffic accidents while commuting to and from work.
On July 2, the minivan taking her home from a factory in Santong special economic zone was hit by a truck. “My leg was heavily swollen,” she said.
Phork Lang, 26, barely had time to recover from her injury before she was involved in another accident on July 20. This time the consequences were more severe. A truck crashed into the minivan carrying her and 42 colleagues from home to work. Of the 20 who were injured, 16 were seriously hurt. Phork Lang broke a bone in her shoulder and lost consciousness.
“A colleague of mine is worse off. She now has blood clots on her brain. She suffers from memory loss and doesn’t remember anyone anymore. She’s still under treatment in hospital in Phnom Penh,” she said.
Last week the Cambodian government announced that the minimum monthly wage for garment workers will be increased from US$182 to US$190 in January 2020. But while wages have risen steadily over the past years, other problems in the garment industry — Cambodia’s largest industry with about 750,000 workers — continue to be unsolved.
One of them is the significant number of traffic accidents that happen when workers are traveling to and from work, often in overloaded minivans and in trucks that were not designed to transport people but to carry goods or cattle.
A July report by Cambodia’s National Social Security Fund (NSFF) showed that in the first six months of this year 24 garment workers were killed in traffic accidents, while 944 were injured. This was a significant increase from the same period in 2018 when 16 workers were killed and 882 were injured.
For Rak Rin, a 32-year-old woman who worked at Horizon Outdoor Factory for over three years, everything changed on April 4 when the truck taking her from home to work hit a truck carrying construction supplies.
Because she was leaning with her left arm through the bars of the truck, her arm was completely cut off.
The same fate struck four of her colleagues.
“I was standing in the middle and never saw that truck coming because I couldn’t see what was happening in front of us or behind us,” Rak Rin said.
She explained that she barely had space to move around in the truck and the only way to keep balance was to put her arm through the bars.
“I wish that the driver had put seats in the truck so that we could sit and not have to put our arms through the bars. Then I would still have my left arm,” she told ucanews.com, adding that she’s now unable to work.
Poorly maintained roads
Accidents involving garment workers are far from new in Cambodia. Workers have been complaining for years about drivers who overload their trucks with dozens of workers, show little respect for speed limits and other vehicles, are clearly intoxicated or show a complete lack of driving skills. They also complain about Cambodia’s bad infrastructure, with many potholes in poorly maintained roads and a lack of street lights.
In 2015 and 2016, more than 100 garment workers were killed in thousands of traffic accidents. While the number of accidents has decreased, Cambodia’s traffic still claimed 40 fatalities and 1,894 injuries last year.
In a recent conference about the issue, Luy Chhim, deputy chief of Phnom Penh’s traffic police, confirmed that many vehicles are not designed to transport people, meaning that they are illegal and unlicensed.
“But we don’t have other options as the drivers have already bought their trucks,” he said. “Besides that, in some areas buses and minivans can’t reach the villages in the rainy season because the road conditions are so bad.”
The deputy police chief added that for now “we are closing our eyes and allowing them to transport workers.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said the accident problem and other issues needs to be addressed. Apart from the minimum wage, unions recently proposed 13 other points to the government including safe transport for workers.
“I have proposed that the NSSF arrange a budget that can be used to replace the vehicles the workers are currently using so that they can commute safely,” he said,
William Conklin, Cambodia director of international labor organization Solidarity Center, believes the problem can be fixed.
“From a union perspective, we now have to confront the government and find a solution,” he said. “Employers should be part of that solution. Their responsibility doesn’t end at the factory door. We worked together to increase the minimum wage from US$60 about 10 years ago to the current US$182. I believe we can also work together to provide safe transport for workers.”
Solving the problem, however, may not be easy in the impoverished country. Ken Loo, general secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), an association that represents over 600 factories, told ucanews.com that it’s not only up to factories to address the issue.
“The employer already pays every worker US$7 per month for transport. It doesn’t mean we have to cover 100 percent of it. Workers themselves should contribute more to make sure they will have safe transport, and other stakeholders such as the brands and the government should get involved as part of the solution,” he said.
And even with more money on the table, the problem may not automatically go away, Loo warned.
“There was a time when workers asked for a higher food allowance, but now that they have it, they don’t buy better food than before. It may be the same with transport. They can ask for more money, but they may not choose a better type of transport and instead use the money for other purposes,” he said.
Sineat Yon, Phnom Penh