September 15, 2022
PHNOM PENH – While having lunch with co-workers – who were enjoying what shade they could under a sparsely covered tree – The Post spoke with Bopha, the 40-year-old garment factory worker who has been in this job for almost a decade. The mother of three said her husband is a construction worker in Por Smart village, Cheung Keb commune, Kandal province’s Kandal Stung district.
She said she commutes to her factory near Sleng pagoda by paying $20 per month to a transportation service. She is forced to stand as the truck has no seats, and shares the tray of the vehicle with about 20 other workers. The drivers usually pack the truck as tightly as they can, in order to maximise their profit, she added.
“Travelling on a truck which is packed so tightly like this I am worried about accidents, but I do not have any other option. I am aware of the risks associated with this kind of transport, but it is the only way I can get to work,” she said.
Even though the transport trucks they use to get to their factories are sometimes over crowded, garment workers are forced to commute in them. Some truck drivers have been criticised for lacking skills and not knowing much about how to operate their vehicles safely.
Some drivers are very young, and have never attended a driving school – meaning they do not understand the Kingdom’s traffic laws.
Kong Savorn, 25, a truck driver who transports workers, told The Post that he has been carrying commuters for two years and never had an accident.
He avoided overloading his truck, as it made the vehicle harder to control, and he was concerned about being able to avoid oncoming traffic if his truck was not handling correctly. He said the garment factory had organised an educational lecture by the traffic police for drivers.
“I have heard people say that the truckers who transport workers are negligent drivers, carrying too many people and driving faster than the speed limit. I do not do either of those things, as I care about the passenger’s safety,” he said.
In August, a truck with a capacity of 2.5 tonnes was transporting 47 garment workers at high speed when it collided with an oncoming van. One worker who was standing on the truck was killed and six other workers were seriously injured. The incident occurred on National Road 41 in Kampong Speu province’s Bor Seth district.
Baseth district police chief Chorn Sophit told The Post that after the accident, both the drivers of both the truck and the van fled the scene. Fortunately, both were identified, and later arrested.
“The drivers escaped before we reached the scene of the accident, but we held the vehicles as evidence and began searching for the drivers. Once we discovered their identities, we were able to locate both of them – in Kampot province,” he said.
Morn Channa, vice-president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, told The Post that garment workers often worked on their feet for eight to ten hours per day and should be able to rest when they leave work. She said that many of them were forced to stand on the trucks for one or two hours before they arrived home. This was the case in Phnom Penh as well as the provinces, she added.
She said that as drivers need to ensure their trucks are profitable, they take as many passengers as they can fit. The crowded conditions are especially difficult for female workers – especially those whose constitutions are weakened by returning from childbirth. Under the strain, minor illnesses often become critical, she added.
Resemblance to pig transport
According to Channa, when trucks are overcrowded, they are much more difficult to control. When this is combined with a wet or pot holed road, it is all too easy for a truck to overturn or run off the road. She had received many complaints from garment workers about these risks.
“When we take these factors into account, workers are at very high risk. There are also health and safety issues related to not being able to sit comfortably and to their exposure to the elements. When the trucks are constantly stopping and starting to pick people up and drop them off, carsick passengers suffer even more. Unfortunately, many factories will ask workers to resign if they apply for sick leave,” she said.
She had heard that the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) were developing a process to improve conditions, but was unsure how far they had progressed.
“Nowadays, the trucks transporting workers almost look like pig transports, except pigs have their own enclosures and more space around them. Of course, it goes without saying that we often read about accidents involving these trucks in the news,” she added.
She called on the labour ministry and NSSF to insist that trucks transporting garment workers provide comfortable seats. There should also be limits imposed on how many passengers each vehicle can carry, although she understood that high fuel prices meant this would be difficult.
Heng Sophannarith, deputy director-general of the NSSF, said that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport had reported that in the first half of the year many drivers were still driving faster than the speed limit, not respecting their duty to keep right and over taking in a reckless fashion. A total of 1,620 goods transport trucks are currently in service carrying workers – with 1,232 not having any kind of seating installed.
“In addition, more workers are now commuting by motorcycle, which is causing its own increase in accidents. This is compounded by the fact that some do not wear helmets. To make trucks safer, the NSSF is urging all trucks to install seating by the end of 2023,” he said.
In 2013, the labour ministry established a working group called the Road Safety Working Group to protect workers by contributing to safety, orderly roads, and the prevention of traffic accidents.
The working group is composed of relevant ministries, institutions, employers’ and workers’ representatives and has the role of developing, planning, educating and disseminating traffic laws, as well as collecting statistics on drivers, and the means of transport employed by workers.
Since the group’s establishment, it has educated 359,848 workers and truck drivers on road traffic regulations. Almost 5,000 truck drivers have obtained licenses thanks to the working group’s efforts.