Land Management Minister Chea Sophara on Tuesday again warned of strict legal actions against building owners and construction professionals who flouted regulations and laws, pointing to the recently-passed Law on Construction.
In a workshop to disseminate the Law on Construction, Chea Sophara said the ministry would use the law’s punitive articles to take legal action against any building owners and construction professionals who failed to abide by the law and construction regulations.
“Before we don’t have a law, but now we have,” he said. “And believe me I will implement it. If we don’t have a law, I don’t know what to do. They refused to listen to us despite our pleas.”
He added that the owners of the collapsed building in Kep province were permitted by provincial authorities to build a five-floor structure, but the owners built two additional floors, all the while using substandard reinforced concrete.
“The officials have to go and check the construction,” he said, but didn’t mention whether any officials would be punished for failing to check the building properly.
The minister also said that since the two building collapses – in Kep and Preah Sihanouk provinces – were under 3,000 square meters, they only needed approval from provincial authorities and not the ministry.
The new law, passed in November, was meant to bring in safety and quality standards in the construction sector requiring routine inspections, occupancy certificates and to get official approval for any repair, modification or demolition.
Additionally, a week after the tragic building collapse at Kep, the government issues a directive banning all construction projects without building permits and prohibited workers from living at incomplete structures.
The government issued the directive on January 10, a week after the Kep building collapse that killed 36 people, including six children. The building collapse was the second in a short duration. A similar building collapse killed 28 people in the coastal town of Sihanoukville.
The directive additionally prevented any construction to occur without a site or construction engineer, directs provincial officials to stop any construction if building owners violate these conditions and to file a complaint with the courts.
“[This directive] completely prohibits anyone living in the building under construction, even temporarily and even people who are not involved in construction work,” the statement reads.
The directive comes amid an outroar from Cambodians about the government’s inaction to enforce building standards. It is common for Cambodian construction workers to live on-site, along with their family members and children.
In August 2018, the World Bank Group warned that development in Cambodia operated on “build first, license later” timeline, adding that provincial authorities were out of the loop or ineffective in issuing and enforcing permits.
Ten days after the collapse, authorities have deemed that the concrete pillars holding up the Kep building were not to specification and gave way causing the collapse.
Tep Thon, secretary of state at Ministry of Land Management and head of an investigatory team, said the concrete columns were not built to technical specifications.
Building columns should be able to hold 25 megapascal – a measure of the compressive strength of concrete – but could only hold 10 megapascals, Tep Thon added.
“It is the mistake of building owner since he believed the construction manager,” he said.
The owners of the building, Ek Sarun, and Chhiv Sothy were charged with involuntary manslaughter but were given bail shortly after on a $90,000 bond and prevented from leaving the country. Reports suggest the construction manager died in the collapse, with Prime Minister Hun Sen blaming only the manager for the incident and absolving all other authorities.
Sok Kin, head of the Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia, said that the government needed to be more severe on local authorities and inspectors who allowed low-quality construction without permits.
“There should be legal action if [the ministry] finds out any individual or institutions colluded with companies to construct buildings illegally and affects the [safety of] workers,” he said, adding that the government wasn’t doing enough to prevent any further incidents.
Construction has seen exponential growth in Cambodia on account of increased foreign direct investment inflows but has also compounded concerns over unsafe building practices and oversaturation in the housing market. A majority of these investments originate from China and center around the capital, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville.