Deadly Collapse in Cambodia Renews Safety Concerns

By Thomas Fuller and Keith Bradsher | Source: The New York Times

Survivors described a scene of panic Thursday after a raised storage area collapsed at a footwear factory in this Cambodian village, killing at least two workers, injuring a dozen more and underlining global worries about factory safety in poor countries.

“I don’t remember anything at all,” said Hey Sokheng, a 19-year-old factory worker who looked dazed in her hospital bed in Phnom Penh, the capital. “When I woke up, I was being dragged out of the rubble by someone.”

Multinational clothing retailers have been considering Cambodia as one of several countries that could be alternatives to Bangladesh for manufacturing after the disaster three weeks ago at a garment factory complex there that killed at least 1,127 people. The collapse and the grueling search for survivors prompted an international outcry for retailers to assume more responsibility for the safety of workers at their suppliers.

The accident at the sneaker factory in Tream Tbal, which is about an hour’s drive southwest of Phnom Penh, is a reminder that workplace accidents and shoddy construction are not confined to Bangladesh, worker advocates say.

“The shoe and garment industry is built upon huge profits and little concern for the well-being of their workers,” said Tessel Pauli, a spokeswoman for the Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop group based in Amsterdam. “It is inherently unsafe and dangerous to work in. As long as workers are marginalized and deprived of their basic rights, the situation will not improve.”

A report by Better Factories Cambodia, a program of the International Labor Organization, highlighted concerns about workplace safety last month, including “a worrying increase in fire safety violations.”

Bradley Gordon, an American lawyer based in Phnom Penh, said that Cambodia had strong laws on safety and other issues, drafted partly with help from international advisers, but that enforcement was often weak.

The cause of the ceiling collapse Thursday was not immediately known. Ken Loo, the secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that steel beams holding up a concrete-floored storage area at mezzanine height between two buildings had given way.

One of the workers injured in the collapse, Jonh Sokpheak, 29, said the mezzanine was “overloaded” with materials for sneakers.

Mr. Sokpheak said he avoided more serious injury because when the ceiling collapsed he fell under a table.

“I feel like I’ve been reincarnated; I didn’t think I would survive,” he said from his hospital bed. “I crawled and crawled and then made it outside.”

Other workers described a frantic rush to safety.

“People were screaming, ‘Get out! Get out!’ ” said Thinna Makara, a 40-year-old woman who sews fabrics for sneakers.

Workers at the factory, called Wing Star Shoes, were making shoes for Asics, an athletic shoe company based in Kobe, Japan, said a company spokesman, Naomichi Hatori. He could not immediately say which market the shoes were shipped to, or whether the plant also made shoes for other brands.

Mr. Hatori said that Asics “offered its deepest sympathies” to the victims and their families and that the company would consider measures to revamp safety at its overseas suppliers.

Popular with runners, Asics has been particularly successful in the United States, where it emphasizes corporate responsibility.

The factory, which opened about 18 months ago and was built on top of former rice paddies, employs about 8,000 people, workers say.

Employees have been asked to report to work on Monday, according to Komean Keang, a seamstress who on Thursday night was attending the wake of one of the workers killed, Ream Sa Roeun.

Mr. Sa Roeun’s mother was inconsolable and had not eaten all day, family members said. She was given compensation of $5,000 by the company.

Entry-level workers at the factory are paid around $75 a month, Cambodia’s minimum wage.

“It’s not enough, especially when your children get sick,” Ms. Makara, the seamstress, said. Workers have gone on strike three times since September, she said, and each time factory managers agreed to a monthly raise of $5.

Ms. Makara’s sister, Melia, a forewoman at the factory, said seamstresses sew about 450 pairs of sneakers in a typical day, including overtime.

Melia Makara, 26, said she was not afraid to return to work because the collapse occurred in a part of the factory far from where she works. Thursday’s collapse was the first fatal accident she had witnessed in four years in the shoe industry, she said.

Until asked about it, Ms. Makara was not aware of the factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Some workers said they were eager to return to work.

“Rice farming cannot support my family,” Mr. Sokpheak said. “I want to go back to work at the factory.”

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