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Opinion

Building the New Southeast Asian Macau: A Survey of Chinese and Cambodian Construction Workers in Sihanoukville

Photo: Ivan Franceschini

Formerly known as a tourist paradise, Sihanoukville today is often described as embodying the worst excesses of Chinese capital. In recent years, official investment in infrastructure from China was accompanied by speculative capital funnelled into casinos and other related entertainment venues, a bubble that produced an annual revenue which industry insiders “conservatively” estimated between 3.5 and 5 USD billion a year, 90 percent of which came from online gambling.

While some Cambodian who owned property in the city were able to profit from this windfall, many others who were unable to afford the rising rents and living costs were pushed to the margins. In the middle of such upheaval, public security became a serious concern. Faced with repeated complaints about money laundering, illegal gambling, kidnapping, and human trafficking allegedly associated with the flood of Chinese immigrants, in August 2019 Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen suddenly announced a blanket ban on all online gambling activities starting from 1 January 2020.

The surprising determination of the Cambodian authorities in enforcing the ban burst the speculative bubble. As casinos laid off thousands of staff, property prices plummeted, and real estate transactions sharply dropped, small businesses whose success was predicated on the prospects of the city to become a new Southeast Asian Macau went bankrupt. With investors fleeing and the future profitability of investment suddenly called into question, construction sites all over the city suspended operations and stopped paying their workers.

As many as 97 percent of the Cambodian workers and 75 percent of the Chinese workers had not stipulated any written contract with their employer, contractor, or agency. Predatory agencies were also quite common. ...Wage arrears were very common, even more so after the announcement of the ban on online gambling in August 2019. ...In spite of the common plight, there are significant challenges for the emergence of solidarity between the two groups.

Between December 2019 and January 2020, as hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese workers were stranded in Sihanoukville hopelessly waiting for their back wages to go home for the Lunar New Year, I conducted a survey among workers in a sample of seven Chinese construction sites—both private and state-owned—located in Otres, a village on the outskirts of the city. In total, I administered 95 questionnaires with Chinese workers and 90 with Cambodian workers, which I then complemented 34 semi-structured interviews with workers of both ethnicities.

This research unearthed widespread problems. Employers in the surveyed sites purposefully left their workers in legal limbo. As many as 97 percent of the Cambodian workers and 75 percent of the Chinese workers had not stipulated any written contract with their employer, contractor, or agency. Predatory agencies were also quite common and some of the Chinese workers stranded in Sihanoukville complained bitterly about how they had been cheated.

Wage arrears were very common, even more so after the announcement of the ban on online gambling in August 2019. Although Cambodian and Chinese workers toiled side to side, their tasks often overlapping, their treatment was very different. The Cambodian workforce was largely paid by the day, with a going rate ranging between 8 and 20 USD, but in the vast majority of the cases falling between 10 and 15 USD and women earning between 8 and 10 USD. Chinese workers received a payment in the range of roughly 50 to 72 USD (350 to 500 yuan) per day. Bonuses for attendance or performance were extremely rare and employers did not provide any insurance or pay any social security—only 14 percent of the Chinese workers (and none of the Cambodians), all employed by SOEs, declared that the company had stipulated private insurance for labour-related accidents for them.

The power of the employers was reinforced by the weakness of local institutions and the widespread perception among workers that they were living in a no man’s land where they can get no support whatsoever. “There is no law” was a constant refrain in the conversations with Chinese workers. The perception of lawlessness was further exacerbated by the stories of kidnappings and attacks targeting Chinese nationals that swirled around in the Chinese ex-pat community in Sihanoukville. When asked whether they believed that the local labour law would have been able to provide them with some protection in the event of a labour dispute, 98 percent of the Chinese workers replied negatively. Cambodian workers were slightly more optimistic, but still, as many as 54 percent of them expressed disbelief in the ability of the law to help them.

Somehow unexpectedly considering the vibrant history of labour unionism in contemporary Cambodia, unions did not feature anywhere in the conversations with the workers. No unions were active on the sites included in the survey, a finding that reflects the general situation in Sihanoukville.

In spite of the common plight, there are significant challenges for the emergence of solidarity between the two groups. First, none of the Cambodian workers could speak any Chinese and none of the Chinese workers could speak any Khmer. Second, the lack of a common language limited the social interactions between the two groups outside the workplace to the barest minimum. Third, the two groups were separated in their perception of unfairness related to the gaps in payment. While 88 percent of the Chinese workers were convinced that the wage gap was justified—the common refrain being that they were more qualified, skilled, efficient, and had to face high living costs—64 percent of the Cambodian workers believed that the gap was not justified at all.

The gambling ban of August 2019 and then the coronavirus outbreak in the early months of 2020 might have put an end to the dream of Sihanoukville as a new Southeast Asian Macau. With the fate of the area now more uncertain than ever, the Cambodian authorities are trying to reshape the narrative of the city as a new Shenzhen, going as far as to bring in experts from the Chinese metropolis to draw a master plan for the city as a new industrial hub. What is apparently missing from the current discussion is how Shenzhen was built through the systematic exploitation of a migrant workforce coming from the Chinese countryside. No matter what lays in the future of Sihanoukville, one can only hope that the Cambodian authorities will avoid past mistakes. 

Ivan Franceschini (方易仁) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, The Australian National University. He co-edits the Made in China Journal, an open access publication on Chinese labour and civil society.