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Soun Srey Ya

An outgoing woman, Soun Srey Ya, age 38, has been involved in construction work for about 10 years. She also experienced a few other jobs before working in construction, which included jobs as a morning-glory seller and as a garment worker. She quit the garment factory because of internal problems at the factory. After quitting, her neighbor asked if she wanted to work in the construction sector.

Following her neighbor, Srey Ya started off at the 42 Tower construction site, receiving only US$3.50 a day. She’s been employed at the Aeon 2 construction site and Pong Peay City where her wage was doubled. Her job is tying rebar. Like other advocates, Srey Ya also raised her concerns about inequalities at work, for instance, getting lower wages than male counterparts. She demanded her basic right. She accepts calmly the nature of both genders and that men have more physical strength. ​ But she believes that what men can do, women can do too if they are taught.

When asked if she has had any injuries, she said embarrassingly that she was once badly injured under her waist line while working on the Vattanac building. She was wounded by a sharp vertical rebar.

With her and her husband wages combined, she said she can afford to look after her family and her children’s education. A proud mother of three, Srey Ya said her children have never caused any concern for her and the family, and added: “My three children are my motivation to continue working. They are the lights of my life. I want them to finish school and use their knowledge to find a good job with good salary. I don’t want them to follow my path that’s the reason why I am trying real hard.” She said that she is neither sad nor happy with the job, knowing that this job is risky and dangerous. If she doesn’t work in this sector, she doesn’t know where she would go or what she would do. She added, “it is just a way of living.” Besides working as a construction worker, she has another job as a housewife. She comes back home after a long tiring day to again do housework. She said she cannot complain even though she’s exhausted, she still said, “it is not tiring. It is my duty as a good mother.” In the future, Srey Ya has a goal to buy a house and sell groceries when she gets older– a stay-at-home mother who can cook good food for her children and wait for them to come home from work for dinner.

Srey Ya has a message dedicated to her children:

“As a mother, I want nothing from you. What I want most is to see you succeed in life and have a bright future. When you spend mother’s money, you should realize that the money you’re spending is from my sweat and tears working as a construction worker. Everywhere I go I pray for you three. You are my life.”



Theourn Sophea

Theourn Sophea, a 25-year-old construction worker whose hometown is in Kandal province, has been working in this booming sector since she was 20 years old. Formerly a garment worker, Sophea quit the factory job and followed her husband to work at the construction site so that she could have time to look after her kids. Besides, she often fainted while working in the factory.

When asked to compare the difficulty between the garment job and construction work, she said, “Both are the same. But the garment job is stricter – sometimes workers are forced to work overtime, while there is more freedom in construction work; however, the pay is very little.” Getting 17,000 Khmer Riel per day, Sophea’s job is to mix limestone, carry tiles and the mixed limestone. She sometimes assists three skilled construction workers at a time. Sophea tries to be cautious and careful, as much as she can, yet sometimes she has dropped tiles she was carrying on her own feet. Despite having five years experience in this sector, she still cannot overcome her acrophobia. “I am really scared of heights. I always say no when a skilled construction worker I assist tells me to apply the limestone while standing on the scaffolding.”

Sophea earns less than her peers because she usually asks for days off as her kids often get sick and nor is she in good health. For daily expenses, she normally spends just 4,000 riels but this can sometimes rise to 8,000 riels.

“If I don’t try to eat less, I will not have enough money for saving.”

Talking in a dry and tired tone, Sophea said she doesn’t want to work in the construction sector, however, she must do it to help earn money for her family.​ “I pity my husband who is the only breadwinner in the family. My health is not good, so I cannot help him much.”

So far she and her husband have saved some money and she has inherited land in her hometown. She wants to build a home on the land and someday move back there. But before going back, she wants to continue working for another year until she has enough money to open a vegetable stall in a local market.












Ros Theavy

A Neak Leoung residence, Ros Theavy, age 34, came to try out her luck in the capital in 2009. She first landed a job as a construction worker at a Diamond Island construction site. A former seller near the Neak Leoung ferry station, she says construction work is much more tiring and tougher than her previous occupation, however, she adds that it can help solve living problems.

Theavy has just changed her workplace from Diamond Island to Borey Chamkarmon as the later provides better wages and working conditions. While working on Diamond Island, Theavy received 18,000 riels – 4,000 riels lower than her current workplace. Her duties are mixing and carrying limestone and sometimes cleaning as instructed by a foreman. We all have bad and good days; and life for this advocate is no different. Sometimes she faces challenges at work when she is assigned to mix five to six sacks of limestone, and on some days that can be seven to eight sacks. What’s more when she comes home, she does all the household chores such as washing dishes and doing the laundry. When asked if it’s exhausting and if given an opportunity, would she protest such norms? “Of course, it is exhausting, but I have to be patient. As a woman and a wife, it is my job and duty.” Theavy mentioned inequality in the workplace regarding wages. Males always get higher pay than their female counterparts even though the nature of their jobs is similar. She thinks sometimes men are not as productive as women. “Women are more diligent in their work; moreover, they do more than what’s assigned to them. Men are stronger; they can only lift the heavy stuff.”

After working in this sector for about eight years, it has become a simple job to her. Remembering when she just started the job. She said, “It was difficult for me at first. But I was determined to do this job. No one taught me. I learnt all by myself – I peeked at my peers because I wanted to know their techniques of mixing limestone and cement.” However, at the same time, she is also worried about her health and future.

Combined with her husband’s wages, Theavy manages to send home some money for her children and mother. As she has come to Phnom Penh to find a job, she leaves her children with her mother so they can go to school and get an education. “They are my hope and future. I am poor and uneducated. I don’t want them to be like me.” Theavy maintains a positive outlook on construction.

“Construction work is a fair occupation. Your capital is your labour – what you get is what you put – labour, sweat and blood – in. It is far better than begging. I am happy with my job because it’s what I choose. No one forces me to do it, so I am happy.”

Theavy will continue this job until she saves enough to open her own small business.

Theavy has a few requests to all the construction companies to distribute necessary safety items such as construction hats, footwear construction, and to increase the wages for female construction workers to be equal that of male.


Sor Saream

The youngest of 13 female advocates, Sor Saream is 15-years-old and has been working as a construction worker since she was 10. Saream mentioned that her parents have been involved in construction work for a long time. She said, “we were doing good; my father was a foreman. Unfortunately, we got cheated by a fellow foreman and had to borrow money from MFIs (which we all call “State”) to survive”. Because of her family conditions, she decided to drop out of primary school as soon as she could, saying she couldn’t keep up with the lessons. Since then, she has started to help her family by assisting her parents in construction and washing dishes at a restaurant to earn extra money.

Saream used to do different jobs to help earn money for her parents. Washing dishes in a restaurant earned her 200,000 Khmer riels a month but the work was too intense. She had to get up at four o’clock every morning but wouldn’t finish until late at night. She worked there for only four months then her parents told her to stop. Besides, Saream also worked at another construction site with her uncle before coming back to assist her parents. There, she earned 18,000 Khmer riels per day and was responsible for tying rebar. But after several weeks she was again told to quit by her parents.

The youngest in her family, Saream, is the only one who works in the construction sector among her three siblings. When asked why, she replied that her older sister was in school and often gets sick, and her oldest brother just came back from Thailand, so she’s the only able one who’s strong and healthy enough to help her family out. She said,

“I’d do whatever I can to help pay the debts of my family even though I must eat salt, or prohok.”

She is not responsible for big tasks, while working with her parents. She is just her father’s apprentice. She helps him with mixing, carrying limestone, placing and carrying tiles. Most of the time, she can mix up to 10 sacks of limestone in half-a-day; she won’t have lunch unless she finishes the given task.

Saream thinks there is no future in the construction sector, so she has a goal in mind. She wants to be a garment worker. When she’s 18-years-old, she’ll go to work in a garment factory in which she thinks will help her family to be far better off.

Som Sodyna

Som Sodyna, 37, whose hometown is in Takmau, is struggling to make end meets as a construction worker. She was a garment worker before becoming involved in this sector with her husband for about a year. Having trouble with her health is one reason why she quit the garment factory and entered the construction sector.

Despite the exhausting and extremely difficult nature of construction, Dyna did not give up. She is working hard for a daily wage of 20,000 Khmer riels. Normally, she assists one skilled construction worker, but sometimes she assists two to help her colleague out, that’s where the challenge begins. Sometimes, when urgent, she needs to carry many piles of tiles at a single time. Besides carrying tiles, she also mixes limestone and has to carry that as well. She said mixing limestone is tiring because she has to bend down constantly to mix it.

Also, aware that this kind of job is transient, Dyna wants to change occupation.

“This job is not permanent. If given an opportunity, I would like to do something else. I don’t want to be stuck on construction site forever.”

She wants to expand her knowledge and learn vocational skills – sewing and tailoring. However, she doesn’t have enough savings since she needs to spend daily on her family and repay a debt to a Microfinance group. Comparing her previous life with  working as a construction worker, she said, “It has always been difficult. But in the construction sector it’s easier to get money because payday is twice a month.”

Dyna said the government and the construction companies should respect this sector and not underestimate it because many of the jobs are for unskilled labour.  “Some people from the countryside don’t have any skills, so when they don’t know what to do for a living they will work in the construction sector. Therefore, minimum wages and some basic rights such as rights to paid holiday should also be awarded. That’s a way to help us, construction workers, especially female construction workers.”

Ros Thearin

The youngest of six siblings, Ros Thearin also known as Mey, aged 19-years-old, has been working at a construction site near Wat Phnom for a year. Young and inexperienced, Mey followed her two elder sisters to work as a construction worker as there is no more ferry running to and from Neak Leoung since the bridge was opened, so she has no place to sell anything anymore. Mey also followed her friends and quit school at the beginning of grade eight. She didn’t think too far ahead about her future and now says she regrets dropping out.

Mey didn’t initially come to Phnom Penh to work in the construction sector. She worked in a garment factory before, but couldn’t stand the smell of the fabric; therefore, she quit the garment job. Mey started as an apprentice, like other female construction workers, and was given two tasks to handle – the mixing and carrying of limestone. But now she is doing different tasks ranging from cleaning, running workers’ timesheet and storage. “It is quite easy for me as I am given lighter tasks to do.” Mey was injured in her first year of work, hurting her left leg in a two to three metre fall.

“If someone hadn’t grabbed me quickly, my neck would have been broken.”

She receives a daily wage of 18,000 riels. Not wanting to waste her time, she also works overtime after her usual working hours and gets the same amount as her daily wage again. So in total, she earns 36,000 riel per day. Though better paid than her peers, Mey still doesn’t like her job; she does it to avoid the boredom. She also believes there is no future in the sector, but she is not sure about what she wants to do next. She wants to own a small business, but hasn’t figured out what kind of business. So, for the moment, she said she will stick with the construction sector. When asked if there were any men who verbally harassed her in the work place, she replied, “There are a few as I am the only single female worker working on the site, but I ignore them.”

Nup Sara

Nup Sara, who is just 33-years-old, has been working as a construction worker with her husband for about 10 years at many different sites. And now she’s based in Borey Piphub Thmei Chamkardoung.

Sara lost four children and hope in this maze of bricks; she cannot move anywhere far from this sector, saying it’s her only choice to survive. Before this, Sara was a garment worker; she quit due to her health and the conditions of the job. But following her husband to work at the construction site didn’t make her health any better. In fact her health is getting worse day by day as the construction job is far more difficult. She said she had five children, but only one daughter is left. The other four passed away at very a young age because of disease. When Sara was six months pregnant with her third child, she was still carrying limestone for her husband. “I think the reasons why my children couldn’t survive was because I had carried loads of heavy stuff. When I went to the hospital, the doctor said I didn’t know how to take care of myself. And it’s true. But how could I take care of myself while my husband was the only source of income? We need to help each other to survive.” Her life is always on the line; she doesn’t know when her life will be taken away as she is working in a very dangerous place. Once while working on a different construction site, a huge pile of tiles — about 100 tiles – fell on her, and at the time she was also two months pregnant, fortunately she was ok. “No one helped me immediately. Everyone was in shock.” She stayed in the hospital for only one week, and dared not to stay any longer because she had to pay the hospital fee herself. Neither the company nor the foreman were held responsible for the accident.

Sara mentioned that last year she and her husband used to cross the border to work at a construction site in Thailand, but were cheated and almost had no money to come back home. Since working in this sector with her husband, both have run out of luck – there is never any savings for the future, and they are still struggling to make ends meet. Sara and her husband sub-contract tiles from her foreman and she thought she would be better off doing that; however, reality is not like expectations. She has never received a regular payment from her foreman. Sometimes she didn’t get wages for two or three weeks, but when paid she received only US$20 or US$50.  Sometimes she has nothing to eat, she even owes the grocery seller nearby.

When asked if she’s happy in doing what she’s doing right now, she said,

“I’m happy when I can work with my husband as he’s the only family I can rely on. But I am always concerned about my daughter’s future. I cry every night.”

She has realized that there is no future in this job, yet it is the only choice she’s got as she’s poor and uneducated. “I don’t know what else I can do. I will stick with this job until I collapse and cannot do it anymore. But if I had a little savings, I had a wish to open a motorbike repair shop for my husband.”


Tuy Oeurn

Previously a rice transplanting coolie in L’vea Em – her hometown – Tuy Oeurn, 38, has worked on construction sites in Phnom Penh for about six to seven years.

Oeurn said, “I work one day to eat for one day. My daily wage is 20,000 Khmer riels, and my expense is the same.” She is an apprentice, and her duty is to carry and mix limestone. Some days, she said, it’s so tiring because she needs to assist more than one skilled construction worker at a time. Since working as a construction worker for almost 10 years, she has never had any savings, for she spends on food daily, sometimes on her children’s and her own medicine and even worse she still has to pay off her debts. No matter how difficult the nature of the job is and how exhausted she is, she keeps working as hard as she can for the future of her two daughters who are living on site with her and studying at a school nearby.

Oeurn is a person who loves long hair; she had kept her hair waist length. However, one day she had to make a hard decision; she had to cut her hair and sell it to pay a debt.

“The foreman ran away without paying us any money, so I had to sell my hair to pay a food debt that I owed. I got only 60,000 Khmer riel for the cost of my hair.”

She added, “This job is risky. We never know a person’s mind and what they’re thinking. Luckily, I was cheated only once.”

When asked if she was happy with her job, Oeurn said she’s happy to do it because she’s poor. She’s worried about her health and most importantly, her daughters’ future, for she doesn’t want them to follow in her footsteps. “I want my kids to go to school and be educated. I don’t want them to be uneducated and stupid like their mother.” Oeurn said she is going back to her hometown next year to work in the rice field as a rice transplanting coolie, even though the income might be lower than construction work, the difficulty level is also lower and more importantly she can take care of herself too. Her request on behalf of female construction workers is that their wages need to be reviewed and increased to the equivalent of their male counterparts.

Meas Rothana

Meas Rothana, 28-years-old, is new to this construction work; she started working in the sector six months ago at the Vattanac construction site. Previously a garment worker in Kampong Speu province, she was fired because of asking for days off too often, as her children were sick and she had to take care of them.

She said the job is much more demanding, but the wage is lower than the garment factory job. She is a cleaner, responsible for cleaning the construction area, and collecting trash. “Though my job seems to be easier than my peers, there are also some challenges that I need to overcome.” Rothana’s challenges are carrying the trash down from high floors and sometimes the trash is very heavy and full of metal debris. Moreover, sometimes she must go clean the area full of electrical wire; therefore, she needs to be cautious at all times. Despite the challenges of the job, she received only US$6 per day at the start, less than her male counterparts.

“We are always considered weak, while men are considered strong. We do the same tasks and carry the same heavy trash. We deserve to have an equal pay.”

Rothana is not backing down from demanding what’s right and what she thinks she and her peers deserve. She had just started work when demanding a US$1 a day wage increase, so now she as well as her colleagues get US$7 for their daily wage. Besides working eight hours a day, plus overtime, Rothana sews at home for a Christian Church. She sews sweaters and winter hats. All material is provided by the church. Though It doesn’t pay much at least it helps to make ends meets.

Rothana doesn’t know when she will stop working at the construction site. If she stops, the only way for her is to go back to the garment factory. Talking about the future, she said if she had more savings she would build a house of her own so that she would not have to pay rent. When asked if she is happy with her job, she replied, “Yes, I am happy. If I’m not happy, I don’t know what to do because earning money is more necessary to my survival.”

She also has a final request for the construction companies and construction teams to recruit both women and men. She also wants them to increase women’s wages to be equal to that of men because men and women can and do the same job.

Nop Seourn

A 40-year-old single woman, Nop Seourn is spending her days on the construction site just for her own survival. Before starting as a construction worker Soeurn was employed as a domestic worker at her hometown, L’vea Em District, Kandal Province. After growing tired of her former job, she asked her eight siblings about her next move. They told her to work in the construction sector, since all of them also worked there.

Seourn has been working for three years. She first began in Borey Peng Hout, and now she’s an apprentice in Borey Piphub Thmei Chamkardoung. Her responsibilities involve mixing and carrying limestone. “Working in this dangerous job, it’s impossible to avoid injuries,” Seourn said, adding that she had stepped on nails and was seriously injured after falling from a three-meter scaffold.

Receiving a daily wage of 19,000 Khmer riels, she said she can’t save because construction wages are paid once per week or twice a month. She said, “it gets thinner and thinner, whenever I receive payment I have to spend it immediately.” She must pay back to the grocery seller nearby, and sometimes spend money on medicine. Worse, there are times her foreman doesn’t give her any wages. So at the end of the month, she has nothing left.

When asked whether she sees a future in her job, Seourn laughed,

“What future? I am trying these days for nobody since I don’t have children and family of my own. I am trying for my mere survival.”

She is going to stop working on construction sites next year. Seourn said, “I am not happy with what I am doing now, for it is exhausting and I still get cheated even when I work just for the sake of survival.” She plans to get back to her hometown and work her former job, the same as before coming to work as a construction worker.