PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Chen Him, 40, twists coils of steel as she crouches on a small mound of dirt on a construction site in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Her husband, a wiry man in his mid-40s, moves around her, picking up the steel coils and carrying them to another part of the site. Nearby, their 6-year-old daughter sits playing on slabs of concrete, occasionally looking up to watch her parents work.
“We used to be rice farmers in Prey Vang province,” Him explains, referring to a region east of Phnom Penh. “But fertilizer was very expensive and it was hard to make a profit, so we moved to the capital two years ago to work in construction.”
Today, Him makes around $6 a day twisting steel and carrying buckets of cement for a Chinese firm. Her husband makes $10 a day.
In Cambodia, where the proliferation of luxury condos and high-rise commercial buildings contributed almost 20 percent of gross domestic product growth in 2015, women are increasingly turning to the construction industry for employment. An estimated 20 to 40 percent of Cambodia’s 200,000 construction workers are women, according to a recent report by CARE Cambodia.
Often these women join their husbands on the job, transforming life on the construction site into a family affair. But research shows that most women are paid an average of $2.50 less than the men and are given fewer opportunities to learn new skills or advance in the workplace.
The gender pay gap is a problem all over Cambodia, as it is around the world. According to a 2016 International Labour Organization Report, there is a 35 percent wage gap between young men and women workers in sectors across Cambodia. But this is due to the fact that women are usually given roles with less responsibility than men. The pay difference is more striking in construction because, in that industry, women often do the same jobs as men, such as bricklaying, but still make less money.
“Over half the women CARE surveyed said they didn’t receive any training or didn’t have the same opportunity as men to be promoted on the job,” Adriana Siddle, an adviser with CARE Cambodia, says.
Siddle says many women are drawn to the industry because it offers more freedom and flexibility than work in a garment factory, where many Cambodian women are employed. But that flexibility means the women are offered fewer protections.
Last year, CARE launched a project to encourage female construction workers to stand up for their rights, including by demanding equal pay for equal work and lobbying for the more lucrative jobs usually reserved for men. But discrimination in the construction industry is rooted in deep-seated gender biases and a belief that women cannot perform the same tasks as men, experts say.
Pinan Him, who joined her husband and her cousin Chen on the construction site in Phnom Penh seven months ago, says she could make more money if she were allowed to carry heavier equipment, but her bosses won’t let her.
“They say that physiologically women aren’t able to carry heavy things,” she says.
Fighting to Do Men’s Work
On a Mekong River islet known as Diamond Island, where luxury condos lay empty and dozens of construction cranes dot the skyline, 33-year-old Chanda Oum stands watching her colleagues amid the dust and sound of heavy machinery. The majority of workers on duty today are women, from the bricklayers to the security guard.
Oum’s husband is the supervisor. She began working in construction nine years ago so she could be close to him and contribute to the family income. Since then, she and her husband have had three children who live with them in whatever makeshift housing the company offers.
Oum says she earns $5 a day tying metal rods, but the men can earn between $7 and $10 working high atop the buildings. She would like to make more money, but she doesn’t think the option is open to her.
“It’s impossible to do the men’s work because the boss won’t allow us,” she says.
Of the women surveyed by CARE, around 53 percent said they could perform the same tasks as men if given the opportunity, but 73 percent said certain tasks and equipment are reserved for the men.
Cambodia’s labor law says employers cannot make decisions about work assignments based on gender. But Siddle says many employers are unaware of how these laws apply to the construction industry. (The Ministry of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.)
Meanwhile, less than half of the industry’s employers cover the cost of treatment if a worker is injured on the job, according to the CARE report. And female construction workers and their families are often crammed into squalid barracks where they share a bathroom with dozens of others. Health problems and minor injuries are common.
Ith Sreyneag, 40, says her skin broke out in rashes when she began working in construction 13 years ago.
“It’s very hard work and very tiring,” she says. “Now my hands hurt a lot, but my skin has adapted.”
Sreyneang and her husband both mix cement and lay bricks, but while he makes $10 a day, she only makes $7. Their 18-year-old daughter also mixes cement at the site.
“I’m happy my family works together,” Sreyneang says. “But I hope my daughter won’t do this forever.”