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‘Lucky’ Survivors Describe Harrowing Factory Collapse

  • Kong Sothanarith
  • VOA Khmer

PHNOM PENH - Nine survivors of a shoe factory collapse in Kampong Speu province remained hospitalized Friday.

In interviews with VOA Khmer, several of them recounted the event, when a storage mezzanine loaded with manufacturing equipment fell.

Survivors considered themselves lucky to be alive, after they were nearly crushed by chunks of concrete and equipment at the Wing Stars factory.

Two will be hospitalized for a lengthy period of time, a doctor told VOA Khmer.

The collapse occurred on Thursday morning, as some workers began their day beneath a mezzanine storage level.

“We were cleaning, painting and polishing shoes when some dust started falling down, but none of us took notice,” Ngeth Phat, one of the surviving workers said, as she recovered at Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. “We kept on working. I don’t know what caused it, but after the dust fell for about 10 minutes, there was a large crash.”

That crash was the collapse of the upper level, which officials say appears to have been built in the factory with little regard to safety standards. Two workers were killed in the collapse.

Heng Navy was also working under the storage level, examining shoe soles, when she hear a loud crash.

“Then I looked up and saw things falling down,” she said. “I tried to run away, but I couldn’t manage it. A piece of concrete fell and trapped me.”

The rubble fell on her leg and broke it, she said. Only some baskets storing the soles prevented her head from being hit, she said.

Authorities say they will conduct an investigation into the cause of the accident.

Chorn Sopheak, another worker at the factory, may shed some light. He said he had gone to the upper level and had sat down on a chair up there when he heard something out of the ordinary.

“I heard a cracking sound,” he said. “All of the sudden, I fell down to the lower level with the goods and concrete and a table. It was the table that protected me. Otherwise, my head would have been hit and I would have been killed.”

The garment industry employs hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, across hundreds of factories in the country. The sector exports to major buyers in the US and Europe, for a total of $4.5 billion in 2012.

But union leaders say little regard is given to the workers, who earn a tiny share of the overall profits from the sector and are subjected to poor working conditions. And they say the Wing Shoes accident has raised concerns of more to come.

“Even a building constructed just a year ago partially collapsed,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, referring to the Wing Shoes mezzanine. “What about other buildings in Cambodia?”

Social Affairs Minister Ith Samheng said in an interview the government regretted the accident.

“We pay our condolences for the deaths of our two workers, and the government will take action to make sure such cases will never happen again,” he said.

The victims rushed to Calmette Thursday were the lucky ones, they said.

Rim Saroeun was not among them. He perished in the collapse. At his home in Bati district, Takeo province, family members mourned on Friday, weeping over his coffin, where his photograph hung, as they prepared for his funeral. He was married, with a one-month-old son.

His uncle, Rim Rorn, also works at Wing Shoes. He says there needs to be better safety regulations in factories to prevent such accidents.

“I would like to ask the government to ensure safety in factories, so that the next generation of workers will not face the same problem,” he told VOA Khmer in an interview.

For Rim Sareoun’s widow, Nuon Chorvy, it matters little. At their home on Friday, she could not bear to look at her deceased husband’s photograph. Instead, she looked from time to time at the newborn in her arms.