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Photographing the Perilous Lives of Cambodia’s High Rise Construction Workers

Some work 11 storeys high without safety harnesses, wearing flip flops. Every month, there's another story of someone falling to their death.

by Alex Consiglio
06 December 2016, 2:05am

Cambodia's construction industry is booming, but the lives of its workers are perilous. With no safety equipment, regulations, or incident reports, builders are treated as disposable. Every month, there's another story of one falling to their death. And government inspections aren't exactly routine, it's a sector that has been left to essentially regulate itself.

I first came into contact with construction workers in Phnom Penh while working for a local newspaper back in 2014. I've been photographing them ever since, as the high rises continue to go up. I've met entire families who live on building sites, confined to small shelters built from leftover wood. I've met workers who work 11 storeys high without safety harnesses, wearing flip flops on their feet. Many risk their lives daily in order to provide for their families or pay off debts.

US-based labour rights group Solidarity Center estimates Cambodia's construction sector workforce to be 300,000 strong, with an average salary of about $7 per day for unskilled labourers. They fear it will take a massive, unavoidable accident to usher in long-overdue changes. Such an accident is probably inevitable.

"Until something really bad happens, it's hard to expect progress," says Solidarity Center director William Conklin. "It would take a major construction accident, a lot of loss of life, and even then I don't know if changes would be sustained. It's sad that you have to say that."