Plans to encourage factory worker transport trucks from large flat-bed lorries to ones with seats, or buses, appear to be progressing slowly, due to the expensive nature of new vehicles. Transport operators’ lack of capita and an inability for workers to pay more for their commute remain barriers to the transition.

In 2023, a total of 14,312 workers were injured at work or while commuting.

Lying in a hammock stretched between his truck and a mango tree, truck driver Sokhay Prasoeur waits for the evening’s load of tired workers.

He explains that he has been doing this job for about seven years, after obtaining a $15,000 bank loan to purchase his 2.5 tonne truck. He says he has yet to become better off by driving the workers from their homes to the factory and back.

Hailing from Trapeang Chhouk village of Kampong Speu province’s Oudong Me Chey town, he says he rises very early in the morning to collect the workers and drive them 20km to their garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Kamboul commune, on the outskirts of the capital city.

Each of his passengers pays 60,000 riel (about $15), per month, so he earns about $750 a month from his 50 regular charges. Although the figure seems high enough to make a decent living, his expenses mean he earns just $100 in profit each month.

He explains that if he was forced to fit seats to his truck, it could carry far less passengers, so he would be unable to make a profit.

“The fees I collect from the workers are barely enough to cover my expenses. Some months I do not have enough money to repay the bank, while gasoline prices are high,” he says.

He adds that he and several other truck drivers are often asked to join training programmes by various organisations working to improve road safety in the Kingdom.

Another owner-operator of a truck, 24-year-old Pov Sophea, tells The Post that he charges his 50 regular passengers between 50,000 and 60,000 riel ($12.50 and $15) per month, depending on the distance he has to drive them. 

He says he has installed a metal frame for the workers to hold onto while travelling in his truck, but notes that if he installed chairs, he could only carry 20 to 25 workers, meaning he could not earn enough to support his wife and three children.

Sophea adds that he has taken out more than $10,000 from a bank to buy his truck, and needs to earn enough to make regular repayments of the loan.

“Even though my truck carries a lot of people, I drive very carefully and have installed a metal frame for them to hold on to. If my truck was equipped with seats, I could not afford the expense of operating it,” he explains.

San Srey Mom, a 38-year-old garment factory worker from Kampong Chhnanag province’s Prachak village in Rolea Ba’ier district’s Prey Moul commune, spends about 130,000 riel ($32) on her commute to neighbouring Kampong Tralach district. 

She says the expense is a significant part of her $204 monthly minimum wage.

“Sometimes when the driver hits the brakes, we all collapse on one another, or bang our heads and our arms. If seats were installed in the truck, I would be so happy,” she adds.

Srey Mom notes that provincial traffic police officers often work with the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training to run workshops on traffic laws in the factory, so workers all gain some understanding of the law.

Slow progress 

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC), describes the transport methods employed by most factory workers as effectively unchanged, saying the majority of them still stand in the beds of converted flat-bed trucks. He also warns that some of the truck drivers lack formal training or even driving licences. 

He is also concerned that some of them were reported to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

He notes that the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) – and other relevant institutions – has discussed the importance of providing purpose-built vehicles which meet safety standards many times, but it appeared that no one was willing to invest in making this happen.

“This may be related to cost, as workers pay less if there are more of them in one vehicle. Prices would have to go up if seats were introduced, but perhaps the factory owners or the state could contribute to subsidising the extra expense,” he says.

“At present, very little has changed. People are using old or cheaply modified truck, or even over-crowded remorques, trailers towed behind motorcycles. Even though many different groups are talking about the need for safer vehicles, things remain the same,” he adds.

Kim Pagna, country director of The Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, explains that in the past, many government institutions have tried to push for change, but have yet to establish legislation which demands it.

“According to the law, the use of trucks to transport people is prohibited. The most common type of vehicle currently in use, a flat-bed truck with a cage, is an illegal vehicle, but transports about 60 per cent of factory workers,” he says.

“That is why the AIP is working with government agencies and stakeholders to look into the possibility of promoting the use of dedicated buses, whether 15, 35 or 40-seaters, to transport people to work,” he adds.

He states that many truck drivers were unaware that their vehicles were illegal, as they were simply doing what most other operators do. Many of the workers themselves, he notes, want the cheapest possible transportation services.

Pagna believes that as many as 80 per cent of truck owners have taken out loans for their vehicles, often at interest rates as high as 20 per cent. This mean they are unable to switch to passenger specific vehicles, while still meeting their repayment obligations.

He suggests that in order to encourage a move to safer vehicles, ways need to be found to help truck drivers access capital at lower interest rates.

He acknowledges that their prices would likely increase, but suggests they supplement their incomes by working in the factories themselves.

Labour ministry spokesperson Katta Orn tells The Post that last year, 13,474 work-related accidents or road crashes while commuting were recorded, with 14,312 victims. This represented a four per cent decrease from the 2022 figures.