Cambodian Construction Sites Emerge as Political Battlegrounds

Wage inequality and forecasts of a sharp downturn in the construction industry are emerging as major issues ahead of Cambodia’s commune elections, scheduled in June.

Low wages in the construction industry — construction workers earning as little as $2.50 a day — persist despite a building boom and rapid economic growth in recent years. The World Bank says Cambodia has sustained an average growth rate of 7.6 percent between 1994 and 2015, and it is expected to remain strong at 7 percent over the next two years.

Despite wages remaining stubbornly weak, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen often highlights construction, a major employer of the rural poor, as an integral part of Cambodia’s economic strategy based on four pillars: garments, rice, tourism and construction.

Complicating matters, however, is a property analysis by EPenh that is forecasting an end to the property boom with a crash of up to 50 percent of current market values over the course of this year.

The political equation

Questions over equal pay for women on construction sites also are looming as part of a campaign for improved industry standards ahead of the June 4 commune elections and the national ballot in July next year.

Chork Yeurn, an informal, unskilled day laborer who works with her husband on a construction site in the capital, earns no more than $5 per day, plus 50 cents an hour for overtime. But she is rarely paid on time, which makes it difficult for her to access health care and other services when needed.

“We are weak so they can use us for whatever they want. We have no rights and if we oppose them, they will fire us. That is difficult,” she said, mindful of the approaching commune elections.

“I want the government to take a look at the life of construction workers and ask employers to increase our salary, especially for us as females. We work like men, we carry sand and do many other things but we are paid cheaper wages,” she added.

Mu Suchua, a senior figure with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), said wages are an important issue in the daily lives of workers and their families, and they need a real wage to cover life’s essentials like health care, food, transportation and rent.

“In 2018, we will be talking about the bigger issues directly affecting the wages of the workers. We will be talking about decent work, decent pay, which means reducing poverty at the local level,” she said. “Construction workers under a CNRP government, like any other workers, they have the right to strike.”

Demands for higher wages led to a bloody crackdown on street protests, with at least four people shot to death by the authorities in early 2014.

“The power of the workers, of the union, is in their power to strike. If you take away their power to strike you limit their opportunity. … Who benefits from it? The employer,” Mu Suchua said.

“It’s not that we want to promote strikes. No. We want a fair share of development,” she said.

A spokesman for the government declined to comment.

Equal pay is the law

Yann Thy, general secretary of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia, said the upcoming election is significant and wage issues should be raised, because votes from workers will determine who wins office at the commune elections. He said the government is well aware that the rules for better and equal pay exist.

However, implementation and enforcement depend on political will and whether it will benefit the politicians.

“In this election, I think whether the government wants to or not, they must consider every angle, because each vote for the party is important,” he said.

William Conklin, country director of the Solidarity Center, said the wage disparity between men and women should not exist.

“It’s against the law, it’s against the fact (that) Cambodia’s ratified the ILO (International Labor Organization) core convention on pay equity,” he said.

“But what they do, they categorize the different work. So they may be performing and do the same job or basically same work but they may give them different titles.”

And that, he said, enables them to skirt the laws on equal pay.

Luke Hunt contributed to this report from Phnom Penh.

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