Cambodian Workers Fall Through Cracks in Workers Comp

Un Raksmey and Jonathan Cox / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Sin Thy doesn’t remember the name of the factory where he was working, where his arm got caught in a stone-crushing machine. The factory has paid the hospital bills, but he has received no compensation for lost wages.KT Photo: Fabien Mouret

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – For many workers injured on the job, or the families of those killed in accidents, the odds of getting compensation from the National Social Security Fund are slim. 

Since 2008, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) has been there to help families avoid financial hardship when a breadwinner is injured or killed. But analysts working in the labor sector say many workers never see their payment. 

Workers face hurdles before getting payment. Many are disqualified for improper paperwork. Some work at factories that are not registered with the Fund. Few understand the court system well enough to sue employers who renege on paying workers compensation. For workers who do get compensation, it is often slow to arrive.

Wrong Papers, No Payment

In May 2013, the mezzanine of the Wing Star shoe factory collapsed, killing two workers. After the funeral, the family of one of the girls who was killed asked the Fund for the compensation. But when NSSF workers came to the girl’s village to check her identity, they saw that the name on the factory’s employee list didn’t match her birth name. Like many of her coworkers in the garment industry, she had used a fake name and a forged ID to dodge the minimum age requirement when she started work at 14. 

Her family insisted that the slain girl was their daughter. But the Fund would not pay them  compensation for the workplace death since the names didn’t match. In 2013, the NSSF spent $1,728,509 to help 15,059 injured workers. But this family received nothing. Around Cambodia, regulations like this have disqualified hundreds of legitimate claims in the name of preventing fraud. 

“This is the main issue which we need to address,” said Moeun Tola, head of the Labor Program at the Community Legal Education Center, an NGO. “Many of these workers use fake documents borrowed from relatives or neighbors [to avoid minimum age requirements].”

A lack of proper paperwork can cause other problems: sometimes the wife or husband of a killed worker lacks a valid marriage certificate, disqualifying them for the $1,000 for funeral expenses and monthly payments to make up for the loss of income. 

The government is aware of this problem. NSSF spokesman Meng Hong said Fund officials plan to hold a meeting with their counterparts at the Ministries of Labor and Interior to discuss how to compensate families of workers without proper paperwork.

“We’re trying to remedy the situation,” he said. Until the issue is addressed, though, the lack of proper documents can spell a life of financial hardship for families of killed workers. 

Righting Wrongs

Even when workers have proper paperwork, they often don’t realize they are entitled to compensation. Sometimes they are illiterate and unable to handle paperwork necessary to file a claim if their employer or the NSSF fail to provide the proper compensation.

“I myself have gone and explained [the NSSF system] to the family of the dead workers,” Mr. Tola said. “But they don’t understand how to get the payment from the NSSF.”

In addition, many businesses do not register with the Fund. NGOs working on labor reform say that employers who are not registered with the NSSF often duck requirements to pay medical costs, funeral costs, and monthly stipends to the family of a killed worker. 

Every factory with more than eight employees is legally required to register with the NSSF, paying a government-subsidized premium of just 0.5 percent of each worker’s salary. But in practice, many subcontractors and companies do not register, especially when they employ short-time or seasonal workers.  

“There are plenty of businesses in certain sectors, including construction and restaurants, that are not registered yet,” said Mr. Tola.

Mr. Hong said the NSSF is working to educate rural Cambodians about their rights to worker’s compensation. They call factories, instructing them to inform workers about benefits they are entitled to. The NSSF also hosts public meetings to educate workers, as well as manning a free hotline to report factories’ failure to pay or to request payment. The phone number is 1286. 

Delayed Response 

Even when the papers are in order, NSSF payments are often slow to arrive. Instead of receiving money quickly to pay for funeral expenses, some families are forced to take out loans to bury loved ones. 

The speed of NSSF payments is hidden from outsiders, but labor NGOs have anecdotal evidence of the organization’s slowness. A minivan accident in Svay Reng province in May killed 19 garment factory workers. NSSF should have paid for emergency medical services to transport injured workers to the hospital, but when NGOs arrived on the scene no ambulances had arrived. 

“The NSSF people hadn’t arranged any medical care – it was an example of where a third party had to intervene,” said William Conklin, country director for the Solidarity Center, an NGO supported by the AFL-CIO, the American trade union federation. 

The long response time of the ambulances was not the only problem for Svay Reng families. Almost one week after the accident, the families of the slain workers had not received money from the Fund for the funerals. And this was a case that received huge publicity.

“On paper it’s a good system,” Mr. Conklin said. “But workers often need a third party to intervene, because the process is erratic and officials may not be as helpful as they should be.”
Additional reporting by Srey Kumneth

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