A year since Sihanoukville collapse, has Cambodia reformed its building sector?

Cambodia has enacted a sweeping new legal approach to construction since the deadly Sihanoukville building collapse that killed 28 workers and their family members. But with legislation in hand, has anything changed for the labourers building the Kingdom a year on?

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June 22, 2020
A year since Sihanoukville collapse, has Cambodia reformed its building sector?
A survivor is carried out of the rubble from a collapsed building in Sihanoukville on June 24, 2019. Photo: Sun Rethy Kun/AFP

A year ago today, a building under construction in Sihanoukville collapsed before the first light of dawn, killing 28 workers and family members, injuring 26 more, who were sleeping inside.

The seven-story building had been contracted by a Chinese firm looking to capitalise on the building boom then transforming the seaside resort town into an unrecognisable cityscape dominated by highrises. Though unpermitted by local officials and still incomplete at the time of the collapse, the structure had housed at least 60 workers and their families, most of whom were sleeping on the lower levels at the time of the 4am disaster.

The event made international news and forced a public reckoning with the often-haphazard nature of Cambodia’s booming construction industry. In part to appease investors wary of the risks now widely visible in the market, the Cambodian government fast-tracked passage of a sweeping new construction law intended to regulate the burgeoning sector.

But as the industry scrambled to address concerns raised in Sihanoukville, it was confronted with yet another tragedy less than six months later in January when a building collapsed and killed 36 people in the Cambodian coastal town of Kep. As in Sihanoukville, the building had incomplete permitting and the victims had been sheltered on the ground floor.

The repeated loss of life on the Kingdom’s building sites underlined the need for more stringent regulation but, while the nature of the latest reforms would rebuild the industry on paper from the ground up, actual enforcement is fraught with issues of government capacity and will. 

Khun Tharo, programme coordinator at labour rights organisation CENTRAL, said passage of the new construction law had been pending for years and attributed the Sihanoukville collapse as a key factor in getting it over the finish line. However, even with the reforms officially in place, Tharo said many basic problems have in reality gone “totally unchanged”, citing as one obvious example the continued practice of workers staying in unfinished buildings despite a government ban on the practice in the wake of the Sihanoukville collapse.

In the case of the Sihanoukville collapse, he said the question of justice for survivors of the collapse and the families of the deceased is still far from answered.

“Holding the owner, the developer, to be responsible I think is still a huge question as to how we can bring justice to the victims who were killed by a collapse,” Tharo said. “We’re seeing that those who hold responsibilities for the killing are still free.” 

Rescue workers search for victims in the debris after an under-construction building collapsed in Sihanoukville on June 22, 2019. Photo: Sun Rethy Kun/AFP

More than 20 survivors were pulled from the debris in the days after the Sihanoukville collapse and, as the dust cleared, seven individuals involved in the managing firm were arrested for charges including involuntary manslaughter and criminal conspiracy. Yun Min, governor of Preah Sihanouk province, also resigned in the wake of the disaster, while deputy director of the National Committee on Disaster Management Nhim Vanda was sacked for what Prime Minister Hun Sen labelled his “lack of responsibility”. 

Weeks ago in early June, Sihanoukville provincial Governor Kuoch Chamroeun, Yun Min’s replacement, announced that prosecutors had completed their investigation of the charges and would by June 26 move to trial for six of the original arrestees.

Earlier this year, the Cambodian couple that owned the collapsed building project in Kep were similarly charged with involuntary manslaughter in Kampot Provincial Court. They have yet to face trial for these charges and, while the affected workers and their families received financial restitution from state-sponsored public fundraising, Tharo said the owners have yet to be found liable for civil compensation.

Unlicensed and unregistered subcontractors exist within the construction industry. Just last month we saw two workers killed at a construction site at the Thai Boon Rong cement factory in Kampot

Ing Sophealeak, an attorney with Bun & Associates law firm in Phnom Penh, oversees legal matters of real estate and construction. At a March conference in the capital moderated by a Globe reporter, he described the new construction law in detail. In addition to clarifying the requirements of builders in matters of contracting and business dispute, Sophealeak also said the law calls for a system of third-party inspections at various points in the project’s lifespan. This would include visits from professionals qualified to examine a development’s structural integrity to prevent fatal collapses like those in Kep and Sihanoukville. 

Cambodia already had laws on the books ostensibly regulating the industry but Sophealeak said those in the business have tended to prefer more interpersonal methods of hashing out building agreements that can eschew contracts and formal negotiations between project owners and subcontractors that might otherwise provide legal safeguards for work.

“I would say, up until now, the law is not sophisticated enough,” he said. “That leaves a lot of room between the parties and opened up a lot of abuses.”

Despite the size and heft of the construction industry in Cambodia, the sector has operated with less oversight than comparable sectors like manufacturing. The International Labor Organization believes there are upwards of 100,000 industry workers in Cambodia; CENTRAL estimates some 260,000 people are employed in construction around the country, often labouring in unsafe conditions on day-to-day employment schemes.

These workers may lack even simple personal protective equipment (PPE) and can be seen working at great heights with little more than a firm grip separating their bodies from a crushing fall. Where law exists on paper to manage safety onsite, proactive enforcement is sparse, even in situations that clearly go beyond the law.

Tharo said that, as is, relationships between subcontractors and project leaders can be murky, with limited accountability when things go wrong onsite.

A tearful mourner on January 4 at the site where an under-construction building collapsed in Kep province . Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP
Rescue personnel work at the site where an under-construction building on January 3 which collapsed in Kep province. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

“After the collapse, I think there’s still a question about government mechanisms to make sure the law is enforced and who would enforce it,” he said. “Unlicensed and unregistered subcontractors exist within the construction industry. Just last month we saw two workers killed at a construction site at the Thai Boon Rong cement factory in Kampot because they were not trained to undertake the job.”

Tharo said even when unregistered operators are discovered, their projects aren’t always halted. In Sihanoukville, the collapse prompted a government effort to inspect the permits of projects already underway – while some illegal or unsafe constructions were demolished, local human rights observers noted it was unclear if those individuals behind the developments were facing legal repercussions.

The Sihanoukville collapse came at a time when the coastal city’s breakneck growth, fueled by Chinese investment, was reaching an apex due to booming interest in online gambling. But when that lucrative piece of gaming itself collapsed after a government ban, the flow of foreign money began to dry up, grinding to a halt the most intense period of local construction.

Chamroeun recently issued a report stating the local government had approved more than 1,350 projects with a total value exceeding $7 billion between 2017-20, adding in a recent press conference that there are more than 1,000 projects now in various stages of completion.

Though investors have continued work on some of these, others are now sitting empty after foreign ownership fled the country amid the financial downturn. Earlier this year, Chinese workers who had been labouring on one of these massive projects hung banners pleading for provincial authorities to help them recover earned wages from building owners who had abandoned their sites. 

Tharo said wage disputes are common to the industry and often go unaddressed under the eyes of the law. He believes a general lack of transparency and human resources on the part of regulators is undermining enforcement efforts even in obvious situations like workers living in unfinished buildings, or site signage that fails to list the subcontractors actually working on construction.

“I think when you look at the broader investments in the construction industry, we need to be ensuring that the investors and developers are keeping their obligations, their social responsibility in Cambodia,” he said. “That has to be a strong commitment that the government makes, because it’s one of the largest industries in Cambodia.”

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