Ensuring NSSF for Cambodia’s construction workers

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Cambodian labourers work under the rain on a high-rise building construction site in Sihanoukville. SUN RETHY KUN/AFP

The construction sector in Cambodia is the fastest growing industry in the country, making up an estimated 30.1 per cent of the Kingdom’s GDP.

Recently, however, investment in construction (specifically in the real estate sector) has dropped by 15.3 per cent, from approximately $6.8 billion in 2017, to $5.8 billion last year.

The number of construction projects approved by the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction also decreased by 3.6 per cent over the same time period, from 3,418 in 2017 to 3,294 last year.

The construction industry is positioned in the informal sector, where approximately 87 per cent of the total Cambodian workforce are employed. Between 200,000 to 250,000 of these informal sector workers are in the construction industry.

Unfortunately, due to its inclusion in the informal sector, construction workers are not eligible for participation in Cambodia’s National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

The NSSF, implemented in late 2008 in its current form, holds responsibility for the provision of “basic social security” to those employed in the private sector. Organisations with eight employees or more are required to register their staff for NSSF and pay contributions on their behalf, with it made clear that “workers are not liable for paying such contributions”.

At this time, the NSSF only covers formal workers whose employers have registered the company and its employees with the NSSF, the biggest example being employees in the garment sector.

Construction is considered to be one of the most hazardous and dangerous industries, even before the recent boom. In 2009 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that more than 1,500 people were killed by occupational accidents in the Kingdom.

Last year, Son Kin, director of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC), said “[workers] risk injuries that can cause disability or even death, but they do not enjoy similar benefits such as better wages, good working environment and NSSF coverage”.

Further, Yann Thy, BWTUC secretary-general, noted “there have been many construction workers who have suffered serious injuries from [various] accidents, such as falling from a great height and being electrocuted [as a result of] unsafe work practices’’.

Construction workers are also considered a vulnerable group, with Ath Thorn of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union saying: “Construction workers are vulnerable – some employers do not employ enough safety standards . . . there are a lot of potential hazards for construction workers”.

Not only do construction workers face the risk of injury or death, but due to generally poor day-to-day working conditions many also ultimately suffer from long-term health issues.

Additionally, although construction sites regularly have signage indicating that personal protective equipment and clothing must be worn, these policies are not effectively enforced.

Article 30 of the ILO’s 1988 Safety and Health in Construction Convention states “suitable personal protective equipment and protective clothing . . . shall be provided and maintained by the employer, without cost to the workers”, but Cambodia has not ratified the convention.

Cambodia does not currently have an adequate national law on safety standards for the construction industry that is fit for purpose. However, the government could strive to implement international law on occupational health and safety for construction workers.

According to Dr Han Nopakun, the Deputy Director of Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health, the government is now drafting a prakas that will include regulations for (i) high-rise construction workers, (ii) construction equipment safety, (iii) shelter for workers and (iv) social services.

As this time it remains unclear when and how this prakas will be implemented.

There is, however, an inter-ministerial prakas (produced by Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economy and Finance) that was developed to determine the management mechanisms and benefits of the provision of a health care scheme for informal workers.

In spite of this prakas stating it covers workers in the informal sector, the definition of an informal worker is “an employment contract which is not more than eight hours a week”, and thus does not accurately describe the reality of full-time workers in the informal sector.

Recognising both the immediate and long-term risks for employees in construction, the BWTUC has requested that the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and the Ministry of Land Management Urban Planning and Construction implement the NSSF in the construction sector.

Beyond benefits to the individual, implementing NSSF will be invaluable for providing insights into the industry, with more accurate data gathered and used to improve safety standards.

In addition to inclusion in the NSSF, all employers should be required to provide adequate health and safety training. The absence of sufficient protection and training will continue to see construction workers suffer and a tremendous waste of life.

It is time that central government and the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training work with construction companies, the Cambodia Construction Association, NSSF and the BWTUC to develop and implement criteria for the provision of social insurance benefits and the development of contribution rates under a designated NSSF programme.

Teung Seila is a Young Research Fellow at Future Forum, an independent, public policy think tank based in Phnom Penh. Presently, she is conducting her research project on working conditions in the informal economy using Cambodia’s booming construction sector as a case study.