Kompong Speu, Cambodia – It’s 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, and the women of the Generation shoe factory are finally free.
After a long day at work, they are happy to cast off the drudgery of the assembly line and finally do as they please: chat with friends from nearby factories, listen to Cambodian pop music on their mobile phones, and shop for vegetables and herbs, hair products and even cut-rate underwear at the makeshift market stalls that spring up outside the factory gates at closing time.
But soon, after this brief respite, they will gather their purchases and set off for what is by far the most dangerous part of their working day: the drive home.
Although oppressive conditions in Cambodian factories have become a major issue here over the past few years – with dozens of unions fighting to raise the meagre minimum wage in the face of long hours, forced overtime and bare-bones safety standards – the daily commute is still the most dangerous part of working in a Cambodian garment factory.
To get to and from work, much of the industry’s largely female workforce must pack themselves shoulder-to-shoulder into flatbed trucks, where they stand and cling to overhead poles or even ropes for balance while being driven long distances across the countryside by untrained drivers.
Even in the safest cars, Cambodia’s fledgling highway system is a dangerous place. As in many developing countries, the quality of the roads here has improved dramatically over the past decade. But driving skills, law enforcement, and vehicle inspection are still dismal.
Hundreds of injuries
And the situation is even worse for garment workers. In 2013, there were 18 accidents involving trucks taking workers to and from factories, killing 13 people and leading to 139 serious injuries and 193 minor injuries, according to figures provided by the Cambodian police.
The workers are forced to get on these crowded trucks because they have low monthly wages.
Luy Chhin, a deputy chief in the public order department of the Cambodian National Police, said the police were so alarmed by these figures that they created a working group on road safety for garment factories last year. This group does not conduct inspections, but travels across the country “educating” truck drivers.
“Through educating truck drivers, we have found that 70 to 80 percent have no driver’s license,” said Chhin. “Most truck drivers live in remote areas, so they don’t know much about the traffic law.”
Chhin insisted that the problem was improving, but there have still been at least six garment truck crashes over the past several months. In mid-September, nearly 50 workers were injured on their way home from work when their truck overturned after a mechanical failure. Another 38 workers were hurt in a crash in early September, and in August one was killed in Phnom Penh when a garment truck overturned.
“The workers are forced to get on these crowded trucks because they have low monthly wages,” said Pav Sina, the head of a large national union, the Collective Union of Movement of Workers. As it is, workers get a transportation bonus of $5 included in their $100 monthly government-mandated minimum wage, but most women interviewed for this story said they paid at least $10 to ride to their factories in crowded trucks or vans.
Safe transport, for most, is simply out of the question.
Unregulated and hazardous
Outside the Generation shoe factory, 31-year-old Srey Mom is picking her way through the crowds to find her designated vehicle, a large flatbed truck owned and driven by Heang Sok, an affable man with an easy grin. He insisted he is a good driver and that the 50 women riding in his truckbed are safe. Still, he makes sure his factory worker wife sits in the front seat with him.
The truck commuting system is largely ad hoc and unregulated. When Srey Mom started working at Generation six years ago, she simply followed one of her neighbours and started riding Sok’s truck. Although she is now a local leader for the country’s largest independent union, CCAWDU, she says she does not know who at the factory she would speak to about problems on the truck. Some factories treat truck drivers as contractors and pay them a monthly fee, while other drivers simply pick up routes based on word of mouth and collect money from the workers themselves.
As Sok’s truck started up and pulled away from Generation, workers chatted about what they would do with their salaries when the money came through. One woman wanted to buy a toy car for her sibling’s child; another complained about her family’s inability to afford a cow to plow its rice fields.
“He loves you – that’s why he bought you a headband,” one worker advised a friend.
“We’ve been standing too long; we’re dizzy,” another complained.
As the truck trundled through endless green rice paddies to the strains of the 1980s Khmer-language classic “Nostalgia for Cambodian Land” playing on someone’s mobile phone, the ride felt idyllic. But as it turned onto a dirt road, the truck braked suddenly to avoid hitting a cow. Workers shrieked, giggled and stumbled over each other as they grabbed for the overhead rope. Soon afterwards, a low-hanging tree branch smacked three front-row passengers in the face and eyes.
It was easy to see how a ride home from work could quickly turn from routine to tragic.
Although the Cambodian Labour Law technically renders employers liable for worker safety from the moment they step into a truck on their way to work, in practice, it can be difficult to ensure that compensation for accidents is paid out, or that safety standards are actually adhered to in the first place, according to Dave Welsh, the Cambodia programme director for the Solidarity Center, a US-based labour rights group.
Worse, the labour law does not actually regulate the condition of the trucks and vans used to transport workers, or the training that their drivers must have.
“They need to make sure the enforcement of claims on these accidents is automatic, not just when unions or groups like us get involved, and obviously they need to regulate the mode in which workers are transported,” Welsh said. “And we’re nowhere near international safety standards – they [the trucks] are nowhere near what would constitute even a remotely safe way to get to work.”
He said although workers are not required to take factory-provided trucks, the remoteness of their homes combined with their poverty makes other transport options unrealistic.
“If they don’t get into the trucks, they don’t get to work and they don’t get paid,” he said.
‘We have no choice’
Outside the Juhui Footwear factory in Kompong Cham province one afternoon, a group of four angry women were being shunted away from the factory gates by two indifferent male guards. They were part of a group of 45 women who were injured after the truck carrying them to work swerved off the road and into a tree, tumbling its dozens of passengers into a ditch. Now, they were trying to collect their pay, but although they had arrived on the assigned day, they were not being allowed into the factory.
and got dizzy. Someone had to drag me out.”]
The women – all from subsistence rice-farming families who had taken on factory jobs to earn desperately needed cash in the off-season – also said they were struggling to figure out how to be reimbursed for the money they had spent on post-accident medical care.
“I got hit on my head and chest,” said Vet Voeun, 24. “I was hurt across half my face, and now I have headaches and cannot sleep well … When the truck got hit I lost my mind [fell unconscious] and got dizzy. Someone had to drag me out.”
Voeun said she was unsure whether she would ever go back to work. For a while, she said, she’d be recuperating and helping her family in the rice fields. “I want to take two months off and just grow plants,” she said.
But for others, forgoing the dangerous ride from field to factory is not an option.
Keng Mam, a worker at Handsome II factory near Phnom Penh, braves a multi-hour commute from her home in Odong. Interviewed one morning during the last stretch of the drive, she had her head and face wrapped in a faded pink towel against the dust and sun of the open road.
“The coming time is three hours, and the going time is three hours,” she explained. “In my village, there is no work to do and I lack money to start a business. We have drought and cannot make paddy rice. I’m very scared, scared to be in an accident. But we have no choice because we have no work. We have to be in a truck.”