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Labour ministry: “The attitude has changed”

There is a new image in construction in Cambodia, which is far different from that of 10 years ago, said Dr. Huy Hang Song, Secretary of State from the Labour Ministry, during an interview with the Green Net team. He observes the demand from this industry has enabled more and more women to join the workforce, which was not normal at all in the past.

And following this trend, the salary for construction workers, which people usually think is low, in fact has increased more than in the past. Right now the lowest daily wage a worker gets is around US$5, so if they work 26 days and earn US$130 a month, it is quite a good income for them.

“We can say this salary is not considered as good as the minimum wage in the garment industry but it is reasonable according to the market prices,” he said.

In response to the issue of unequal pay between female and male construction workers, he thinks the attitude has also changed. The ministry has set up vocational training programs, which help students to learn relevant skills for their employment. Women who do pure labour work in construction might be lower paid because they do not have men’s physical strength. However, those women who have received proper vocational training in skilled construction labour, he observes, tend to get higher pay than men, because they are more skilled than the men.

Dr. Huy also acknowledges the lack of proper work contracts and safety protection at construction sites, compared to other sectors, a problem which the ministry is currently hoping to solve.

“We are working with the International Labour Organization as well as ASEAN member states to improve inspectors’ capacity to work in order to boost productivity and ensure good work conditions for workers, ” he said.

Construction site manager: “We might lose profit by paying workers equally”

Kry Phanith is considered the youngest site manager at his workplace. At the age of 22, he has gotten this job after graduating from North University, majoring in engineering.

As his company has many projects he needs to rotate around different sites on a regular basis. At most of the construction sites, there are only two categories of workers, unskilled construction workers and skilled labourers. As unskilled construction workers, the females get paid less than males, as they cannot ask them to do heavy labour like men. They usually just mix limestone and clean the sites.

“I think if we pay female construction workers the same as males we might lose profit. Male workers can work twice as much as women since we can ask them to carry heavy cement but we cannot assign women to do those tasks,” he said, adding that his company gives workers salary based on productivity and capacity to handle tasks at hand.

Workers can stay in the temporary houses the firm built for them and have free use of electricity and water. For many workers that is a major benefit as they can save money.

Phanith said that at his company there is no insurance for construction workers, but when they have accidents the company will always take care of medical treatment and let them rest. The support systems for them are rather informal but still exist.

Green Net researcher: “These female workers are building our country”

As a researcher for The Green Net project in 2016, Chea Kesorphearom has been inspired greatly by the dedication of women who work on construction sites. Given her background from a middle-class family in Cambodia, it is hard for her to imagine herself being able to do the work these women do in such an environment.

“I think they have the mindset to accept whatever work conditions and pay they are offered. They don’t understand that when they do the same amount of labour as men they should get paid the same,” she said, adding that these women should be empowered to stand up and demand basic equal rights.

Based on her experience doing field work for both The Green Net project and previously at CARE, she felt uneasy. These women can only earn a daily wage for the number of days they work. She reflected back on her own life, where many people around her have so many more opportunities but do not value them.

For the older women, their dreams still persist but their realization is not close. For younger female workers, many came to work in the industry to seek a flexible work schedule and do construction work as a temporary job.

“Some women have worked almost 10 years on construction sites, but they still hold the same mindset and are just grateful as long as they get paid for their labour,” she said. In some cases, the sub-contractors do not even pay them on time.

She said, in order to help these workers it is necessary, to begin with educating them to understand they have the rights to work and get equal pay, as well as to have a safer working environment.

“Once they understand and start to raise their voice, the public then understands what these workers have to bear. It’s a fact that these women are building our country and playing an important role in the society,” she added.

Real Estate sales consultant: “Female workers should be given value”

Dy Sophon works as a real estate sales consultant for a real estate development company. When the problem of unequal pay between female and male construction workers was raised, he knew right away where to take his stand.

Seeing the positive growth of construction projects in Cambodia, Sophon can feel the difficulty of having women involved in the big game.

“We can see the involvement of women is still limited, especially for construction where male workers are mainly needed. We only need females for cleaning and other basic light labour,” he said.

Some foreign projects even bring their own workers to do the building, he added, which also in a way affects the situation of the female construction workers.

“Women are our second steps, the first step is to have male workers to work. And the pay, therefore, cannot possibly get higher unless they do other jobs besides labour work,” he said.

In his company estate project, Sophon added, women workers are usually assigned to do different tasks from male workers. Otherwise, they can work at the storage to help workers take care of stock.

But this solution is not permanent. He thinks more private sectors and government must make efforts to balance the rights between male and female labourers, especially to value women’s contribution to the sector. Otherwise more females might migrate to other countries to find work, despite the fact that construction projects in the country are booming.

CARE: “Around 2000 female workers receive training”

Since CARE research was released in 2016, a series of actions have been carried out in order to help Cambodian women construction workers become aware of their equal rights.

Ms. Rath Kalyan, the project manager of CARE, said they are now working on a project which supported by the European Union and the Australian Development Cooperation to raise awareness among women workers and address the assumptions of their abilities so that female construction worker in Cambodia can have safe workplaces and increased opportunities.

“We have been working with employers to help them recognize the benefit of providing opportunities for their female employees and how this can help them ensure they have a productive, stable, happy workforce, ” she said.

Ms. Kalyan added that CARE also collaborates closely with the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training so that issues like safety for female construction workers are addressed.

So far they have trained around 40 female construction workers, and let them train their peers at their worksites and other sites which are partners. Through such methods, they have trained around 2000 workers. They usually gather and discuss safety projection, financial management, and other family conflict resolutions.

Architect: “The Cambodian construction industry is male-dominated”

Muygech thinks there has been a significant increase in construction projects. There are many shop-houses, offices, and apartments, which have been built to supply to local residents. This has also increased the number of females joining the construction sector compared to many years ago. Although his company does design and building, they do not have their own construction workers so they would outsource that work to sub-contractors.

Compared to foreign workers, Cambodian workers tend to stay in the lower range among people in the industry.

“In the construction sector, Vietnamese workers have a better reputation than Cambodian workers. They are often known to be more skilled and more productive than Cambodians and therefore get paid more,” she said.

Muygech observes that the payment for construction workers is not so secure as that of garment workers, who have their guarantee of the minimum wage. At least, by the end of the month, garment workers know how much money they have earned to pay the rent. Construction workers mostly work at a daily rate.

Not only that, but the construction industry is also considered to be male-dominated in Cambodia, although the stereotype used to be the same in other countries.

“They think that’s a man’s job. “

Even though she graduated in England majoring in Architecture and is now running her own company, the surprised looks on people’s faces when they know what she does remain the same. But that does not shake her belief.

“I think both men and women can do this job, but for women, it might be a bigger challenge compared to men as regards the freedom to go out and work late at night. But even so, if we work hard we still have a chance to join the game,” she said.

She added that in her own firm, female employees are actually working harder than males because they usually have a clearer vision.

Worker Activist: “I want our voice to be heard”

39-year-old Chok Yoeurn has worked on construction sites for 5 years. She is always concerned about safety at the site. Even though she’s never had accidents herself, she always fears she will. The new construction site she’s working on now does not provide safety equipment even though she keeps asking for it.

Yoeurn wonders why she gets paid less than men, even though she does the same work as they do.

“I asked the site manager and he said women would never be the same as men,” she said.

She joined the labour union BWTUC in 2014 through a recommendation from her colleague who received help after an accident. From there she learnt a lot about safety protection and basic workers’ rights.

Yoeurn was also one of the workers The Green Net team interviewed in 2015. For her, it was an experience that made her realize her value.

“As a labourer, it was a great honour to talk about my rights. At first I felt that, as a labourer, I could not attend an exhibition and be photographed like that as it was not for someone like me” she said.