Straining under the weight of bricks, buckets and metal bars, a faceless army carry their loads from trucks to a massive building site on Penh Penh’s Diamond Island. Hidden beneath wide-brimmed hats and kramas masking their faces from dust and the sun, the battalion of construction workers is turning this stretch of reclaimed land into a concrete paradise on the city’s southern ‘riviera’.
As a castle-like, 40,000 square-metre condominium slowly rises from the dirt, a closer look at the construction workers’ shaded eyes reveals that many of them belong to women.
“Of the 700 people working here, 300 are women,” said Neang, a 21-year-old woman who has been constructing the building’s drainage unit for a couple of years. “We prepare the cement and carry the materials on the ground floor. In my team, we dig holes. There are only ten women who paint ceilings or cement bricks with men.”
A few hundred metres from where Neang stands, a similar story unfolds at a smaller site located near Rainbow Bridge. Half of the workers on this site are women.
Their work is vital to the island’s development, according to Lim, the site manager. The women are responsible for tying together ribbed bars and making reinforced concrete slabs to bolster the dams that protect the buildings from the eddies of the Mekong and Bassac rivers.
“Women probably represent up to 40% of the private construction sector workforce,” said Van Thol, vice-president of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union of Cambodia (BWTUC). “I say ‘probably’ because there are no solid data on the issue. Most do not have contracts and are seasonal workers. But 30% to 40% seems a fair estimate.”
This is a leap forward for women, who seven years ago represented 20% of the workforce in construction-related industries. Yet while these women represent feminine capability, it may be too early to celebrate them as Cambodia’s ‘Rosie the Riveter’. On-site, these women are delegated lowly tasks such as cement preparation, steel fixing and brick transportation. They are also asked to cook and clean.
“Most of these women are unskilled migrants from rural areas who follow their husbands once the harvest season is over,” said Thierry Loustau, managing director of LBL International, a leading construction company in Cambodia. “They have no training, no experience, and they are not in the sector to make a career. That is why they are hired for tasks that require neither technical qualification nor brute force, even if some are trained and assigned to delicate finishing work.”
A massive shortage of workers in the sector means that women can find work relatively easily on construction sites.
“There is a lot of competition between companies to get workers, even unskilled ones,” said Loustau, adding that large construction sites must provide extra services such as free accommodation and food to attract workers. “This of course is an incentive for men to bring in their wives and children, even if only for a few weeks or a few months.”
Prey Veng rice farmer Thary is one such temporary recruit on Diamond Island. Hired to help on the dam protection unit until the next harvest, she lives with her husband and two children in basic accommodation provided by the company.
“I am not here by choice,” Thary said while bending thin metal rods. “I am here because we are poor.”
The young mother earns $3.50 a day, but must leave her children with friends in the workers’ camp during the day.
“I hate the job,” Thary said. “But if I want to put my children in school and give them a better future, I have no choice but to keep on with this seasonal job.”
While providing a much-welcomed source of revenue for seasonal female workers, the construction sector is reaping the rewards of their cheap labour.
“Many subcontractors are happy to hire for the single reason that they are cheaper than men,” BWTUC’s Van Thol said. “Wage discrimination against women is illegal, but it is a harsh reality on the vast majority of construction sites in Cambodia.”
On Diamond Island, women get paid 50 cents less per day than men for the same job. “That is a lot of money for workers,” Thol said.
Sothea arrived in Phnom Penh eight years ago and found work on the construction site of the new National Assembly office. “I receive $3.75 a day while male colleagues receive $4.25 for the exact same job,” she said. “ Some say it’s because men work faster than us, but this is not true. It is just discrimination.” Taught by her father, Sothea can cement bricks at the same speed and skill level as her male counterparts.
“When I asked for a pay increase my manager said that this is a man’s job and that I should be back at the cement preparation unit. That was not negotiable,” Sothea said.
Like thousands of her fellow Cambodians, she headed to Thailand, where wages can be twice as high as in her homeland.
“I only stayed in Thailand for 19 days,” she said. “The wage was higher, but as a migrant, the working conditions were way worse than in Cambodia. I was shocked several times by electric wires. That was my first and last experience in Thailand.”
While gender stereotypes make it hard for women to access better positions and wages in the private sector, securing those rights in public infrastructure projects is just as difficult.
“Getting women hired in road construction is a real assault course,” says Karin Schelzig, senior social sector specialist at the Asian Development Bank’s Cambodia resident mission. With the Ministry of Rural Development, she had developed an ongoing 500km-long paving project, where women make up 40% of the workforce. But the idea of getting women on road projects – even for a few days or a few weeks – was met with resistance from most contractors, site managers and some officials.
“We faced dozens of arguments like: ‘Women don’t want to work outside because they don’t want to tan,’” said Schelzig. “If this were true, how do you explain the millions of Cambodian women working in the fields? Then we heard that jobs on roads are not suited for women. But do you really need to be a man to carry a flag on the road or to plant trees along it? Finally, we heard that no woman would be willing to apply for these jobs anyway. We then had to show them the long list of local women who had been informed of the project and had immediately registered for it a few weeks before.”
Little by little, the percentage of women working on road projects is increasing. But challenging gender stigmas in the Cambodian construction sector will remain a long and difficult journey, littered with universal stereotypes affecting women’s roles, values and abilities.
“What a man can do, I do too,” Sothea said. “So why do they tell me to make cement when I could build walls on upper floors?”
United we stand
Unions in the construction sector are weak because workers constantly move from one site to another and are therefore difficult to organise. Additionally, many workers do not have formal contracts. Unions try to educate their members, but it’s not as easy as in the garment sector, where you can easily stop production to have your voice heard. Despite widespread wage discrimination in the construction sector, women on sites have few options to seek recourse since they are unskilled workers with limited job prospects elsewhere; they are temporary staff and they can easily be replaced. Many are not aware that such wage discrimination is illegal. Making money – even if it is less than men – is the priority.