Chea Pov, a native of Koh Thom district in Kandal province, wakes up before sunrise every morning to earn a living at construction sites around Phnom Penh.
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Today, the 40-year-old, mid-skilled construction worker will have to drive his motorcycle for half an hour to a construction site on Hun Sen Boulevard, near the Mercedes showroom. There he will lay cement on floors and walls – a job he has been doing for decades to support his family – for a daily wage of $10.
With two children to support – a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter – his income is barely enough to make ends meet, but his wife complements it with some farming work.
“I am somewhere in the middle between an unskilled and a skilled worker. My ability to lay cement allows me to earn $10 a day,” Mr Povs says, explaining that male workers with no particular skill get paid $6.25 per day, while skilled workers can earn between $12 and $15.
There is, however, a significant gender gap. “Women get paid only $5 a day because men need to carry heavier things,” he explains.
This is unfortunate for Sina, who, despite working with Mr Pov in the same construction site, earns half his wage. She mostly installs metal studs, but she is also tasked with bringing bricks to her male co-workers, who lay them down.
“I put in the same hours as the others: when they check in, I check in; when they check out, I check out. But my wage is not the same: I earn a female worker’s wage,” she says.
A report from the Ministry of Land Management noted that during the first half of 2017, unskilled construction workers earned from $8.75 to $10 a day, while skilled workers’ wages ranged from $12.50 to $18.75.
More technical professionals like engineers and architects can earn anywhere from $350 to $2,000, according to the report.
At another construction site, this one near the busy Olympic Market, Som Eart carries a bucket filled with bricks and cement on his hip. Without gloves or helmet, he climbs floor after floor, all the way to the rooftop.
It is Mr Eart’s first month in Phnom Penh. He left his native Banteay Meanchey, in the northeast, a few weeks ago as part of a group of nine people looking for work in the capital city.
Like his co-workers from Banteay Meanchey, he earns $6.25 for a 10-hour workday. Not only that: “benefits are basically non-existent,” he says.
“I sleep here in the construction site, and I have to pay for my own food.
“I start work at seven in the morning. At midday, I take a break, and resume work at one, working all the way until six in the evening. If I don’t work one day then I don’t get paid,” he laments.
His situation is in no way unique.
“These workers have to work every day. If they don’t work, they don’t eat. There are no public holidays, no health benefits. There is almost nothing for them,” says Sok Kean, president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia.
He also points out the role middlemen play in the sector.
“Most construction workers get paid through middlemen, who sell their services to the developers. They take a cut for each worker as commission. What workers get at the end of the day is significantly less than what is stated in official reports,” he says.
Last month, Prime Minister Hun Sen promised a crowd of 17,600 workers in Kampong Speu province that their situation will soon improve.
“On December 10, International Human Rights Day, we received multiple requests from unions to set a minimum wage for workers in the construction sector,” Mr Hun Sen said.
“I am now working on establishing a minimum wage for the construction sector and other industries so that all Cambodian workers earn a decent living and we can end worker exploitation,” the premier said.
Garment and footwear is the only sector in the Kingdom that currently has a minimum wage. Starting January 2019, it was raised to $182 a month.
However, with its workforce multiplying every year, the construction sector should be next in line.
According to the latest report from the Ministry of Land Management, between 11,000 and 12,000 jobs per day were created nationwide last month in the construction sector. Phnom Penh alone saw somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 new jobs in construction in December.
From 2000 to 2018, the ministry issued 43,136 construction permits, covering 114 million square metres and amounting to an investment of at least $43.3 billion.
In the last 15 years, 1,217 high-rise buildings have been raised in the capital, while at least 235 boreys – also known as gated communities – have been completed, according to the latest report from the ministry.
Many of these projects are completed following very low safety regulations – particularly in smaller construction sites.
While in bigger projects, companies provide their workers the safety equipment and the tools they need, in smaller construction sites workers need to find their own, which often means they will carry out their work, like Mr Eart, without gloves or helmet.
According to industry insiders interviewed by Khmer Times, smaller construction sites lack basic safety standards, with developers often assuming that workers cannot get severely injured if the structures they are working on are not too tall.
Mr Kean says there have not been any new developments on the creation of a minimum wage for the sector since Mr Hun Sen’s speech last month. Very few construction workers even know about it, he says.
“At this point, we are disseminating the information so that all construction workers throughout the country know about the minimum wage. We are happy to collaborate with the government to help create it.”
Despite all the hard work and the many risks he faces on a daily basis, Mr Pov, however, has no plans to change industries.
“I am a bit old now to find a new job, so I plan on doing this until I retire. I need this job to support my children’s education so that when they grow up, they can aspire to a better job than their father had.”