Child deaths in Cambodia spark call for construction freeze

Villagers collect steel at a collapsed building which killed 36 workers in Kep, Cambodia January 6, 2020.  — Reuters pic
Villagers collect steel at a collapsed building which killed 36 workers in Kep, Cambodia January 6, 2020. — Reuters pic

PHNOM PENH, Jan 9 — After six children died when a building site collapsed, the Cambodian workers' union yesterday 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 the unfinished guesthouse in the coastal town of Kep, 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. 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 US$6.4 billion (RM26.2 billion) in 2017.

At least two of the children were infants and it was unclear whether any of the other dead chldren 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 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 Centre for Alliance of Labour 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 and work on day rates without contracts and earn as little as US$6 a day — have no choice, campaigners say.

Yesterday 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, report it and authorities will close them down.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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