Risking a deadly commute
Every morning, Sao Ny steps onto the flatbed truck that will carry her to work and has a terrifying flashback – a large tarp flies through the air and strikes the windshield of the truck, causing its driver to careen off the road and crash.
Ms Ny, sitting outside her garment factory on lunch break, remembers the crash from three years ago clearly. She was standing in the flatbed truck as it carried her to her factory in Kandal province from her home in Kampong Speu province.
As the driver went along National Road 4, a truck ahead of them had a tarp blown off of it, striking her truck driver’s windshield and leading to a crash in which the truck overturned, flinging workers out of the flatbed.
“Every day, I’m nervous on my way to work,” Ms Ny, 31, says. “No one was killed in the crash three years ago, but it was frightening. Now when I travel to work, the other workers and I always ask the driver to drive carefully and peacefully.”
“I just want to be able to return home to be with my son and husband,” she adds.
The majority of the country’s 700,000 garment workers get to work every day in the back of flatbed trucks, which are often overloaded with up to 50 or 70 labourers being transported more like cattle than people.
Although the Labour Ministry recently reported a 56 percent decrease in accidents involving garment workers last year compared with 2016, the unsafe manner of their transportation remains unsolved as evidenced by a speech given by Prime Minister Hun Sen to workers on Wednesday.
“The problem of unsafe trucks transporting workers has to be taken care of. The worker transport trucks have in the past crashed and overturned and it is still a problem that needs to be taken care of and monitored to ensure that no more workers die or get injured in accidents when travelling to work,” Mr Hun Sen said.
According to the Labour Ministry, 68 workers were killed in crashes last year and 683 were seriously injured, with another 4,102 slightly injured. In 2016, 118 workers died and 1,293 suffered serious injuries.
On Saturday, one garment worker died and a dozen others were injured when a five-tonne truck veered into their minibus on National Road 2 in Takeo province.
Earlier this month, one garment worker was killed and nearly 50 others were injured in Kampong Speu province when the truck ferrying them to work hit a wheel that had detached from another truck.
Truck driver Dim Chheng, 34, is sitting outside Ms Ny’s factory, resting in the shade under a tree nearby his two-tonne truck that he often uses to transport 50 to 70 workers.
Mr Chheng acknowledges that garment worker transportation standards are not safe, but says he has no other choice but to pack the workers in his truck like sardines.
“I want to transport a smaller amount of workers because it is safer, but if I transport too little, I cannot afford to pay for the gasoline,” he says.
Mr Chheng says he can sometimes feel that his truck is unbalanced while driving, but notes that he drives carefully to ensure the safety of his passengers.
“I have transported workers for more than four years and never experienced any accidents because I am very careful, and drive slowly following the request from workers,” he says. “But I have seen accidents and it’s a big problem because each truck is cramped with overloaded workers.”
Mr Chheng lowers his voice to a whisper and adds that some drivers consume alcohol after dropping off workers while waiting to bring them back home.
“Some drivers are able to control themselves, but some are drunk,” he says.
Mr Chheng says that if all stakeholders, including factories, their buyers and the government, were to create a plan and help drivers secure safer trucks, he would be onboard.
“Truck drivers who carry the factory workers want to change from our current trucks to passenger trucks so that we can safely transport workers and not crowd them into flatbed trucks,” he says.
Representatives of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia could not be reached for comment.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, says that new measures must be taken to protect workers, especially addressing the type of trucks used to transport them.
“Trucks that are meant to transport goods, not people, do not have the same safety systems,” he says. “Passenger trucks, with seats and safety belts, are much safer than flatbed trucks that the workers stand in.”
“Even if the passenger truck has an accident, the workers will be protected,” he adds. “They won’t be flung out and killed or seriously injured.”
Mr Sina says he’d also like to see the government address a lack of respect for the Traffic Law, including overloading trucks with workers and driving in an unsafe manner.
“The recurring problem of traffic accidents is because some truck drivers lack vigilance, some drivers have little experience, and many overtake other vehicles in dangerous situations,” he says. “Older, unsafe vehicles are also not inspected regularly.”
Minister of Labour Ith Samheng has promised to address the issue, saying that the government is working with factories and the companies they supply to come up with solutions.
Mr Samheng says that discussions are taking place with all stakeholders and that all recommendations are being considered.
“There are many causes of traffic accidents,” he says. “But we must strengthen the capacity of the drivers and the quality of the transport means being used to carry the workers, as well as reduce the number of workers being carried at any one time.”
Mr Samheng says that he’d like to see all garment workers in the country enjoy the type of safety standards he’s seen at the Koh Kong Special Economic Zone, where there is a limit imposed on the number of workers loaded onto trucks, which also have seats for them.
Run Roth Veasna, director of the National Police’s department of traffic police, says that his department has already been cooperating with the Transport Ministry to visit factories and educate truck drivers, while also inspecting them to ensure they are licensed.
“We are still urging them to follow the principles introduced by the working team, but the drivers still carry more people than they should,” he says. “The reason is that they want to get more profit by carrying more workers.”
“Some factories, they have safe buses for workers, but in some factories there are too many workers and the factory cannot find the safest means to transport them,” he adds.
Back outside her factory, Ms Ny says she remains sceptical that transportation safety can be improved, especially if the trucks are not changed.
“I’m glad to hear that the government wants to reduce traffic accidents involving workers, but how will we ever be safe if we are still riding in the back of flatbed trucks that have been overloaded with workers?”