Child deaths in Cambodia spark call for construction freeze

Growing crowds of tourists and investors have fuelled a construction boom that officials valued at $6.4bn in 2017.

Heavy machinery removes debris after a seven-floor building collapsed on January 3 in Kep province, Cambodia [Kep Province Authority Police via AP] [The Associated Press]

After six children died when a building site collapsed, the Cambodian workers’ union on Wednesday called for a halt to a construction boom that has killed more than 60 people in seven months, while the government vowed to tackle child labour.

The disaster – in which 36 workers and their families died on Friday at an unfinished guest house in coastal Kep Province – has shone a spotlight on the problem of children living and working on building sites, a common practice in Cambodia.

“Do we want this to become known as normal in Cambodia?” said Sou Chhlonh, vice president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, after the building’s owners were charged with unintentional homicide.

“Cambodian people are dying,” said Chhlonh. “Cambodia has laws to protect them, but the laws need to be enforced.”

The union wants all construction projects frozen until they are inspected and compliant with legal and safety regulations, as growing crowds of Chinese tourists and investors have fuelled a boom that officials valued at $6.4bn in 2017.

At least two of the children were infants, and it was unclear whether any of the other children who died were employed on the site.

Campaigners say the industry is rife with child labour, as are the hundreds of kilns that provide what have been dubbed “blood bricks” for Cambodia’s building boom.

“You only have to go for a walk to see child labour in the construction industry,” said Khun Tharo, a programme coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, a charity.

After the first disaster in June, when 28 people died as a building site caved in while they slept, the minister for construction and urban planning said workers and their children could no longer live on site, according to local media reports.

But the labourers – many of whom migrate from the countryside with young families, are paid day rates without contracts, and earn as little as $6 a day – have no choice, campaigners say.

On Wednesday evening, the Thomson Reuters Foundation witnessed families cooking and relaxing in their makeshift living spaces on building sites in the capital, Phnom Penh.

“That issue is still being addressed; it takes time to implement,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan, adding that Cambodia is committed to wiping out child labour.

“If you see child labour,” Siphan said, “report it and authorities will close them down.”

Source: Reuters