In the Worldbank’s “ease of doing business” index countries are compared on the way in which government facilitates companies and investements (top 3 : Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong). The index scores factors like how easy is it to get electricity or credit, how well ownership is protected, how easy is it to get permits.
Many countries, amongst which most developing countries, try to score high on this index, to become more attractive for investors. In most developing countries, economic growth has a high priority and with good reasons. Reducing poverty is needed and economic growth is crucial to reach that, but sometimes that conflicts with other important subjects, like the safety of labourers.
Cambodia is no exception to this rule. There is a huge building boom going on at the moment in Phnom Penh. New building are developed everywhere, especially high-rises (what brings its own financial risks, but that is another discussion). Last week, from the roof of a building, without any effort I counted 27 locations where a high building was being build and the building had reached above the roof of the two or three story high traditional houses. Without doubt that is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. That building boom, quite often by international companies, is dangerous. As usual, the rules are not the problem here, the country has a legislation that is up to international standards, thanks to foreign support.
The understanding and application of these rules is something completely different. Every building site has a sign stating that everyone who enters the site needs to take safety pecautions. Wear a reflecting vest, safety shoes, a safety helmet. Great, very good, but… those signs are in English and the labourers don’t speak that, let alone that they can read it in a script so different from the Khmer. Even if they do understand, it is difficult to comply. Safety helmets are expensive and difficult to get. The solution? Wear a motor helmet. Why then some tuk-tuk drivers wear safety helmets instead of motor helmets is another matter.
Because of the type of buildings being developed, highrises, especially working at height poses risks. That it is possible to secure yourself is something new, so on a regular basis I see men walking on small steel beams, or worse, climb the outside of the rickety scaffolding when working at 30 metres above ground level. Essential competency for construction workers here is a lack of fear of heights. That doesn’t always work out right, although some of the incidents kind of weird. Last months people were killed by a part of the scaffolding falling down from 20 metres height and by a just constructed concrete floor that collapsed while people were working underneath. The reaction of the authorities usually is to temporarily close the building site and then will try to pass the buck. Who is to blame? The most common outcome is that the building company pays a sum of money to the family of the victim and the site reopens again. Structural measures are too expensive or causing delay and are not enforced by the authorities.