Female construction workers in Cambodia get short changed

Gender bias means women get paid less than men and suffer sexual harassment and denial of maternity leave
Female construction workers in Cambodia get short changed

Soy Chanthorn believes female construction workers should receive similar treatment to hundreds of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia. (Photo by Sineat Yon)

For more than seven years Soy Chanthorn, now aged 46, worked in a shoe factory. When the factory suddenly shut its doors, the Cambodian woman was left without a job or compensation, so she decided to follow her husband onto the construction site where he worked.

There she received the equivalent of US$6.75 per day compared to US$7.50 paid as a base rate to men.

Cambodia's construction sector has been growing rapidly during the past decade as billions of dollars have been spent building business centers, shopping malls and dwellings.

The sector employs about 200,000 Cambodians and 20-25 percent are women, according to non-governmental organization CARE Cambodia.

But the salaries of women are structurally lower than those of their male colleagues, even when they have the same employer and do similar work. And female construction workers often don't receive the maternity benefits they are legally entitled to.

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"Now if a female construction worker gets pregnant she will lose her job," Soy Chanthorn says. "Instead she should be provided with maternity leave and all the other labour rights."

Soy Chanthorn can only dream of benefits such as annual leave and paid public holidays even though she is entitled to them. "I never get a day off and don't receive any protection from the National Social Security Fund," she says. "I get my salary paid every two weeks, but only for the days I work."

A 2017 survey conducted by CARE Cambodia found that almost all women in the construction sector receive US$1 to US$3 per day less than their male colleagues, a difference that is often explained as women purportedly doing less physically taxing work than men.

Three in four women are paid between US$3.75 and US$5 per day, while only 10 percent of women earn more than US$6.25 per day, the minimum male construction workers receive.

One of the main reasons for the widespread gender inequality is that most company managers and supervisors prefer male to female workers. They assert that men can undertake a wider variety of construction tasks as they have better skills than women, CARE Cambodia noted as part of the survey findings.

On Diamond Island, one of the largest development sites in capital Phnom Penh, a small group of female workers are gathered outside the gates of a construction site. Phon Yim is one of them. For more than two years she has been involved in the construction of a large business center and condominium complex.

"Lately I've been working for seven days per week from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon," she says. "I get paid US$5 for a full day of work. Only if I have four hours overtime do I receive US$7.50 per day."

She and her husband share a dormitory room measuring four meters by four meters with another couple, while groups of eight unmarried workers share a room of about the same size with no inside toilet.

Phon Yim and many other workers are also concerned about personal security issues. Construction sites are often unsafe for female workers, Ros Sopheap, director of a women's rights group called Gender and Development for Cambodia, told ucanews.com. "There is not enough privacy and not enough safety, so the female workers are easily harassed by male workers," she says.

The government should take action to protect female workers as it earns a lot of revenue from the construction sector, Ros Sopheap says.

Tharo Khun, a program coordinator of labor rights organization CENTRAL, asserted that female construction workers in Cambodia are exploited. "Maybe it's because of the nature of the industry, where female workers are considered to be weaker than men," she said.

While there are labor laws covering all workers, including women, there is a lack of political will to strengthen inspection mechanisms and enforcement, Tharo Khun explains.

Soy Chanthorn believes female construction workers should receive similar treatment to hundreds of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia. They receive a minimum monthly wage of US$170 plus a US$10 attendance bonus and an extra US$7 for transport. "We should get the same because we contribute a lot to the economy of this country," Soy Chanthorn says.

Her life has become more difficult since her husband had a stroke a few weeks ago. She has been looking after him and has been unable to go back to work. Her husband, despite being a skilled worker, does not get the social security benefits available to factory workers.

*Additional reporting by Ate Hoekstra

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