If there was any doubt about the present warmth in the often tense relations between the Cambodian and Thai militaries, a recent meeting between the two army bosses made a point of putting it to rest.
On May 16, immediately after the ceiling of a shoe factory collapsed in Kompong Speu province, leaving two people dead, promises were made to prosecute those responsible for the tragedy and to conduct a nationwide inspection of all factories.
“We will have a committee investigate clearly on this case and we will take legal action against anyone involved,” Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng said within view of the collapsed mezzanine level of the Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd. factory in Kong Pisei district. “Secondly, the Ministry of Social Affairs and other involved ministries will inspect the building of all factories in use.”
Following Mr. Sam Heng’s warnings, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) and the U.N.’s International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Better Factories program issued a letter to manufacturers “strongly advising” them to voluntarily conduct structural audits on their buildings. To accomplish this, ILO provided factories in the country with the contact details of six engineering companies.
Yet, almost three months after the incident, no one—not the Wing Star owners or the company responsible for the shoddy construction work—has been held legally responsible for the fatal collapse.
What is more, three of the engineering firms listed by ILO said this week that out of all the factories approaching them, only a small fraction of the more than 400 factories exporting from the country are actually working with them to make their factories safer.
“The attention has lessened a little,” said Alan Tang, an engineer for Construction Technology Consultants.
“Most of [the manufacturers] don’t own the factory; they just rent the factory from a local owner and they don’t care so much about the maintenance.”
About 10 factories have reached out to Mr. Tang’s company for inspections, but only four factories are actively working with his company to bring about structural improvements. According to Mr. Tang, buyers sourcing from factories in Cambodia should be pushing harder for manufacturers to complete the inspections.
“The buyer can do more compared to the others; they should be pushing to do more,” Mr. Tang said.
Advancing Engineering Consultants is another of the six firms recommended by ILO. Bryse Gaboury, who is cofounder of the firm, said about 40 factories have approached the company since the factory collapse in Kompong Speu.
But “less than five” are currently working through the process, he said.
“What we’re seeing is we’ve only done the visual inspections and one detailed inspection but few people are actually resolving these issues,” Mr. Gaboury said.
The main reason for factories hesitating to conduct such inspections is the cost.
Rainer Israel, director of iLi Consulting Engineers Mekong Ltd., another of the six recommended firms, said a typical factory inspection would cost between $20,000 and $30,000, a figure that could rise to as much as $100,000 depending on the amount of construction work that was necessary afterward.
Ten factories have approached iLi Consulting Engineers since the factory collapse in Kompong Speu and none have come back to his firm after receiving a quotation, he said.
A structural inspection of a factory can take weeks. The first stage is a visual inspection where engineers gauge the structural integrity based on what can be seen. This is followed by a detailed analysis, requiring measurements and assessments of the building materials. The final stage entails implementing design changes to the building as recommended by the final analysis.
Making up about 80 percent of Cambodia’s exports, the garment and shoe industry is the country’s most robust, boasting a workforce of more than 600,000. In the first half of 2013, garment and textile exports generated $1.56 billion, up 32 percent compared to the same period last year.
The Wing Star ceiling collapse attracted much international attention, primarily because it came less than a month after the April 24 collapse of Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza complex, where more than 1,100 people were killed.
Mr. Gaboury at Advancing Engineering Consultants said the speed at which Cambodia’s industry is growing would bring with it more risks of accidents occurring at factories.
Temporary structures—like the mezzanine level that collapsed at the Wing Star factory—are common in Cambodia. They are often used as permanent structures to hold loads that far outweigh their strength, Mr. Gaboury explained.
“Temporary structures and expansions are the major problems,” he said.
“It’s these structures that people are throwing up to keep up with production—these are the really dangerous ones.”
Mr. Israel said none of the factories in Cambodia would pass structural inspections done by an international engineer, given that they have not been built using any sort of construction code.
Construction codes—which include standard measurements for walls, foundations, floors and roofs—are required in many other countries to ensure that engineers, architects and construction companies are erecting buildings that are structurally sound.
“We know that none of the factories would be able to comply with any international code,” Mr. Israel said. “If you ask us to do a survey and analysis, the conclusion would always say that it [does not] comply with international code.”
Representatives from Nike, Gap and H&M, three major international brands, all welcomed a safe environment for their workers.
But none provided specifics on how they planned to achieve this goal.
“H&M welcomes a Cambodian building code specifying the requirements to be maintained during construction,” Elin Hallerby, a spokesperson for H&M, said in an email. “We also believe the government in Cambodia should take a lead in this matter.”
ASICS, a Japanese shoe company that was the sole buyer from Wing Star, also called for more government involvement to ensure workers’ safety.
Since the incident at Wing Star, ASICS has been working with its nine supplier factories in Cambodia to confirm that the buildings are sound.
“At this stage, we are not aware of any inspections that are being hampered by a lack of funds,” Ron Pietersen, managing executive officer of ASICS’ legal and compliance division, said in an email. “Should this become an issue, we would certainly discuss with the supplier factory in question over how we would assist in coming to a solution.”
Ly Hour, a Wing Star factory representative, said the Ministry of Labor had brought a team of engineers to check on their facilities following the collapse.
“The Ministry of Labor and the engineers came to visit and check our factory already, so there will be no problems anymore,” she said. “The collapse incident will never happen again.”
Sam Sochea, administration officer at Hong Kong-owned Top Form Cambodia—which produces brassiers for Victoria’s Secret—admitted that his factory has been slow in contracting an engineer.
“We will start doing this from the middle of this month if there are no problems related to the election,” Mr. Sochea said, adding that he did not know how much the inspection would cost.
GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng said the process of conducting structural inspections is “a bit confusing,” and said the idea of calling on international buyers to contribute to the cost was “a dream.”
He also said that a single fatal collapse in the industry should not characterize the entire sector.
“There are no other issues in this regard. People are monitoring it themselves,” Mr. Sou Ieng said. “Unless, if there are additional accidents, then we can raise the issue and install inspections.”
Phoeung Sophoan, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, said his ministry has been trying to create a building code for the past two years by studying international construction codes with the help of the Construction Management Association of Korea (CMAK). He hopes it will be implemented by next year.
“We cooperate with CMAK to set up Construction Management because now [we want to build] the high-rise buildings, big buildings, grand buildings,” Mr. Sophoan said.
Before Wing Star’s ceiling collapse, other structural collapses occurred in the country, according to Mr. Gaboury, but people are usually not hurt and the incidents are not publicized.
“These smaller collapses will just keep happening. If there isn’t another Bangladesh or if the fall is not big, it might not make big news,” Mr. Gaboury said. “I’m hoping the pressure stays on this issue.”
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