A building at a factory complex in Cambodia contracted by Japanese footwear retailer Asics collapsed Thursday killing at least three workers and injuring ten, according to officials who vowed to investigate working conditions in the country’s garment plants.
Employees were working underneath a concrete-reinforced storeroom used to house equipment when the ceiling gave way at the Taiwan-owned Wing Star Shoes factory in Kompong Speu province, Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng told reporters.
“Three workers were killed and ten injured in the collapse,” the minister said, adding that the ceiling which crushed the employees included a section of concrete measuring around nine meters (30 feet) wide and 14 meters (46 feet) in length.
“Two were killed instantly and another died at a nearby hospital. The injured are being treated for their wounds,” he said.
Two of those killed at the scene included a male and female worker, both aged 22, though their names were not immediately available.
Workers at the scene of the accident said the building had collapsed just 10 minutes after workers began their morning shift at 7 a.m. They said at least 20 of the building’s 200 workers were working underneath the concrete ledge when it gave way.
A worker named Kuy Sokleap who witnessed the accident said employees had heard what sounded like crumbling foundations before the ceiling fell in, but were not told to vacate the premises by factory management.
“The workers had just begun their shifts. I heard a cracking sound, but the factory didn't sound any emergency alarm,” she said.
“Some workers ran outside, but others continued to work and then the building’s ceiling fell down.”
Rescuers assisted by soldiers sorted through debris for hours in the aftermath of the disaster, freeing those trapped in the rubble before announcing that the search operation had ended later that afternoon.
Ith Samheng said that the accident occurred due to poor-quality construction of the Taiwan-owned factory building, located in Angsokun village about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital Phnom Penh.
“The building didn't comply with construction standards," Ith Sam Heng said, adding that unstable layers built on top of the existing factory structure were unable to support the weight of stored equipment.
Ith Samheng said the Wing Star factory owners, who employ more than 7,000 workers, would be “held responsible according to law” for the accident, adding that the tragedy marked the first time “in recent history” that a factory had collapsed in Cambodia.
Agence France-Presse quoted Ith Samheng as saying that authorities would “investigate the incident and take measures against those involved.” He said the government would “examine all factories to prevent this kind of incident from happening again.”
But Wing Star’s chief administration director Mao Chhivsong told RFA’s Khmer Service that construction at the factory had been licensed and that the collapse was “an accident.”
“I don't know much about the building—only that there was an inspection,” he said.
Mao Chhivsong said Wing Star didn't have a plan in place to compensate the victims.
Officials have promised that the government would pay restitution to the families of the victims and assist those who were injured in the catastrophe with their medical bills through state social funds.
AFP quoted Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, as welcoming the government’s plan to inspect garment plants across the country.
“I applaud any measures to investigate the buildings of all factories to ensure safety for workers, but officials have to do it thoroughly and not accept bribes,” he said.
“Garment factories in Cambodia do not meet international safety standards because the quality of the buildings [is] not ensured and people have been working with a high risk of danger.”
Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for Asics Corp. as confirming that the factory makes running shoes for the company.
“Our prayers go out to the families of those who have died,” she said.
The Wing Star factory has remained closed since the accident.
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms.
The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
In March the Cambodian government announced a higher minimum wage of U.S. $80 per month from U.S. $61 for garment and footwear workers, but unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.
Reported by Sek Bandit for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.