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Collapsed dreams: Cambodia construction workers risk lives for 'riches'

Tens of thousands of Cambodian day-labourers work on the mushrooming construction sites in Sihanoukville
Tens of thousands of Cambodian day-labourers work on the mushrooming construction sites in Sihanoukville AFP
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Sihanoukville (Cambodia) (AFP)

When Sam Sok took a $6-a-day job as a construction labourer in Sihanoukville she knew it could be dangerous, but the deaths of 28 workers in a building collapse -- with her nephew among the missing -- has laid bare the risks many like her face to earn a living.

She left her eight-year-old son with neighbours more than 100 kilometres (62 miles away), one of thousands pushed by poverty seeking to cash in on the once sleepy seaside town's Chinese-funded construction boom.

The work is mostly unregulated, low paid, often dangerous -- and sometimes deadly.

"We do this because of money but now... we are afraid that we might meet the same unfortunate end," the 32-year-old told AFP.

"We work in fear now," she said, from a hospital in Sihanoukville, where she was searching for her missing nephew.

Many were buried in their sleep when the Chinese-owned building -- which was still under construction -- crumbled before dawn on Saturday, and she fears her nephew was among them.

Like most migrant workers, the labourers lived in the structure they were building, having travelled far from home to earn a bit of cash to get by.

Several Chinese nationals face manslaughter charges over the incident.

- Safety short-cuts -

Like so many others, Sam Sok chased rumours of riches in Sihanoukville, having heard from villagers in her hometown about the money to be made.

She earned $6 a day ferrying metal and wooden planks at different sites in the fast-booming city, where dozens of Chinese-funded casinos and hotels are being built to serve a mushrooming tourist industry fuelled by visitors from the mainland.

With day wages reaching as high as $10, the money is often better than what workers could make on a farm or even in a factory.

Cambodia's per capita GDP has climbed in recent years as the economy slowly shifts from agricultural to industrial -- with many workers now finding work in the garment and services sector -- and opportunities in the construction sector are multiplying quickly.

But the World Bank still classifies about a third of the country as "near poor", and the average annual income is around $1,380, lower than many of its Mekong neighbours.

Chinese investment has helped propel the shift away from agriculture, pouring money into new roads, new ports and new buildings across Cambodia, a strategically important Southeast Asian ally for Beijing.

But that building frenzy has also sparked concerns about sub-standard safety regulations in a country where most of Cambodia's 200,000 construction workers have few legal protections.

The majority are day-labourers, don't belong to unions, and aren't protected by minimum wage laws, according to the International Labour Organization.

Building owners often flout safety measures, taking shortcuts that could lead to accidents, said Kong Athit, secretary general of the Cambodian Labour Confederation.

"It's the responsibility of the owners and the government that they must take a serious pre-check before allowing any construction of a building to start," Athit told AFP.

- 'Reborn' -

Construction worker Khmao said he was given almost no safety equipment at the site in Sihanoukville where he carried bricks.

He was sleeping about 100 metres (330 feet) from the site of the collapsed building when he was shaken awake.

"I only have a helmet, no mask, and I'm concerned about my safety," 36-year-old Khmao said.

"I want to go home but I don't have money," added Khmoa, who travelled more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) from eastern Prey Veng province to earn $10 a day on a Chinese-owned site.

Cambodia's premier Hun Sen has blamed Saturday's fatal accident on careless oversight, prompting a senior official to be sacked and another to resign. He also handed out cash compensation of between $10,000 to $70,000 to families of victims and the survivors.

Seven people, including five Chinese nationals, have been charged with manslaughter or as accomplices in connection to the accident.

For some, Saturday's accident was enough to turn them off risky construction work for life.

"I will never be a construction worker again," said Ros Sitha, who survived two days in the rubble before he was miraculously rescued on Monday, weak and bruised.

He got $30,000 from Hun Sen and now plans to go back to his village in Prey Veng province.

"I didn't expect I would survive, I've been reborn," he told AFP.

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