Most construction workers make their way to Phnom Penh from the provinces, where work for them either doesn’t exist or centers on shrinking farmland and inadequate compensation.
They are distinguished by at least two characteristics: skin browned by the sun from all their outdoor work, branding them as lower class, and by painfully thin, if muscled, bodies.
Their makeshift homes here in the capital are where the work is. They inhabit crude, rude, jerry-rigged shelters that are moved and modified as work proceeds on each space they occupy until foundations are completed over weeks and months.
Then,they move to communal rooms without interior or exterior walls, though they may hang cloth partitions. They launder the same one or two sets of mismatched clothing, rear children (without schooling them), sleep in hammocks or on thin pads, cook over open fires and eat squatting on bare cement floors.
With respect to sanitary facilities, I assume they are improvised if they exist at all, offering a bare modicum of privacy. I regularly glimpse men in underwear showering at a corner of fencing at day’s end by dumping pails of water over their heads.
(Where poor migrants from the provinces to Phnom Penh rent is almost as bad.)
Daytimes, they lug, lash, haul, shovel, hoist, climb, sand, paint, erect, jackhammer, sledgehammer and engage in all manner of other backbreaking tasks for which many contractors in developed nations would employ machines where possible. Although machines move earth here, it obviously is cheaper to use manpower than a machine for almost everything else.
The workers labor under a punishing sun from 7 a.m. until dusk six or seven days a week. Sometimes, the work runs into the night; sometimes it starts well before dawn to meet a coordination deadline — for example, the pumping of cement to create a floor.
(Speaking of “manpower,” women are far from exempt from the heavy lifting. I see them every day filling and schlepping buckets with wet sand, carrying loads of bricks and otherwise struggling to earn what passes for a living.)
The unskilled workers make an average of all of $5 a day, no more than $150 a month. To put that amount in perspective, a bowl of noodle soup in an open Chinese restaurant runs something like $1.50 — $45 a month for that one meal — and gaunt whole free-range chickens go for a little less than $2 a bony pound in the markets.
Forget about safety. I was transfixed recently watching three workers who apparently possessed Wallenda genes scrambling along beams high above the street with footwear usually no sturdier than sandals and nothing like a net or harness should they slip. I am told that contractors basically shrug and hire replacements in the event of injury or death.
Thunder and lightning? The work continues anyway unless the storm becomes a deluge.
Pedestrians also face danger. I have yet to come upon a sidewalk shed or anything more comprehensive for protection than the mandated green shrouds that crawl up the sides of unfinished buildings to guard against falling materials at a pace that usually leave bare an upper floor or two.
In fact, a plummeting steel rod killed a woman on a moto early last month as the result of a faulty net.
Those nets are required by law, but enforcement is minimal. Given their slow progress and poor repair, they can’t offer much protection from debris or tools hurtling to the street from above the net line.
As for building standards, even Prime Minister Hun Sen laments their laxity.
The grim, defeated cast of the workers’ eyes speaks volumes to me. Yet an expat who offers a “hello, how are you” in Cambodian when passing by almost always receives a smile and a similar greeting in return. I have written that widespread Buddhist belief in the possibility of a better next life may help explain any positive outlook they manage to muster.
While theirs are brutally hard days in a nation of endemic deprivation, maybe it is better for them than the farms where a brittle substratum of poverty is persistent.
That these souls work in extreme conditions is bad enough and testament to how meager is their existence back home in the provinces. That they condemn themselves to surviving, but hardly thriving, in such apparent misery here in Phnom Penh is proof of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of deplorable living conditions.