SINGAPORE — The final death toll remained uncertain a day after the collapse of a shoe factory in the outskirts of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, with government officials and sources now confirming two deaths as of Friday afternoon- earlier accounts had counted three casualties.
David Welsh, Cambodia director at the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO affiliate, warned that the casualty count could still rise, noting that two of 11 injured workers being treated in hospital were suffering from life-threatening injuries. The factory, owned by Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd., was making shoes for Japan’s Asics and possibly for other brands as well.
Meanwhile, it appears that one of the dead workers, Sim Srey Touch, might have been under the age of 16. Government officials deny this allegation, stating that the woman in question was 22 years old but some of the deceased’s family members and neighbors told local sources that the woman was under 16 years of age.
Local factory management in Cambodia couldn’t be reached for comment; listed phone numbers appear to have been disconnected. An official at the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which Wing Star Shoes is part of, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Mouen Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that preliminary interviews with workers affiliated with the factory suggested that Sim may not have been the only underage worker there.
Mouen said that it is not unusual for the families of young Cambodian girls to pay the local village chief around 5,000 Cambodian riels, or $1.25 at current exchange, for forged documents that enabled them to work.
On Thursday afternoon, senior government officials told reporters and workers’ rights groups there that at least three workers had been killed by falling debris after a ceiling in a factory gave way. However by Friday morning, they had reduced the death toll to two.
Government officials said that the ceiling that gave way had been supporting an illegally constructed mezzanine level that was used as a storage area. Mam Narai, a director at the provincial Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction told the Phnom Penh Post that the mezzanine, which had been constructed off a thin piece of concrete, had not received planning approval and that it was insufficient to hold the weight that had been placed on it.
At a press conference on Friday, factory management apologized for the incident and said that they would offer compensation to workers who had been injured or killed and pay their medical expenses. The compensation that Wing Star Shoes was offering wasn’t disclosed, but local media said that $6,000 was being offered to the families of the deceased and $1,000 to those injured.
Labor activists noted that the factory had been constructed more than a year ago and that government officials had plenty of time to inspect the premises. “By law, every single factory is supposed to be inspected once a month, so why didn’t they find out anything [beforehand]?” said Mouen. “It’s only just after the collapse that the authorities say it’s been constructed without permission.”
“It’s a disgrace that anything remotely like this could happen because in Cambodia, there are only 500 factories to monitor,” Welsh said.
According to a spokeswoman from Japanese sportswear manufacturer Asics, which sources from Wing Star Shoes, the Cambodian footwear manufacturer is the subsidiary of an Asics subsidiary. The Kobe-based company said it is investigating the incident but did not provide further details on what happened or its future plans for the factory.
“We are deeply shocked and saddened to hear of this terrible accident at a factory that manufactures Asics shoes. We want to pass on our deepest condolences to everyone involved. Safety is of paramount importance for Asics. While the factory is not operated by Asics, we will be offering support to those affected and have launched our own full investigation into the cause of the incident,” Asics said in a release.
The Wing Star Shoes factory has a record of alleged labor rights violations. A report of the factory provided by the Clean Clothes Campaign said that between 10-20 workers fainted on a daily basis at the factory, which the organization said did not have proper sanitation or treatment facilities. Mass faintings have long plagued garment manufacturing plants in Cambodia.
Separately, on Friday the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Community Legal Education Centre issued a report accusing a second Cambodian shoe factory, New Star Shoes Co. Ltd, of employing more than 1,000 underage workers. It also claimed that two worker deaths occurred at the factory over the past two years– one by electrocution and another by machinery.
New Star management could not be reached for comment. It is still unclear whether New Star, the object of the report, and Wing Star, the company that owns the factory that collapsed Thursday, are affiliated with one another but sources suggest there is a link between them. The report claimed that New Star is also an Asics supplier but Asics could not be reached for comment.