Pursat Cassava Plantation Workers: ‘It’s better to work for a Khmer boss than a Chinese boss.’
March 5, 2015, 8:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Pursat Cassava Plantation Workers: ‘It’s better to work for a Khmer boss than a Chinese boss.’

 For many years, Sum Phy, 39, has hailed from her home village in Prey Veng province with her three children to look for work in different provinces. She and her 16-year-old daughter would be hired as daily laborers to harvest rice or work on plantations owned by local Cambodians. As work became scarcer in the nearby provinces, she moved further to another province.

Eventually, she ended up in Ksarch La’eth, a remote village in Ansar Chambok commune, Pursat province’s Krakor district, two years ago. In this northwestern corner of Cambodia, a cassava plantation stretches westwards as far as the eyes can see on a once dense forest to the foot of the mountain. Therefore, Sum Phy and other fellow workers can find plenty of work to do – though they are less pleased to do.

For one reason, the supervisors of the plantations are not Cambodian. They are Chinese bosses belonging to a company from China. The Chinese company has a joint venture with Pheapimex Co.Ltd., owned by CPP Senator Lau Meng Khin, which in 2000 was granted two 70-year Economic Land Concession covering 310,000 hectares in Kompong Chhang and Pursat provinces for growing acacia and eucalyptus trees for pulp and a modern paper mill.

After razing all the forests, they decided to turn the land into cassava plantations instead and have hired hundreds of workers across Cambodia to work for them in slave-like conditions.

“They hit the bell at 5.30 in the morning to gather the workers,” Sum Phy laments. “We cannot eat breakfast on time. The work is painstakingly hard, but we have no choice.”

Under the burning sun, Sum Phy and a dozen other female workers are cutting cassava trees and tie them into bunches for replanting. Sum Phy says each worker is required to collect 100 bunches with 20 cassava trees each per day. Their clothes are soaked with sweat and their exhausted faces darkened by the sun after day-long work that hardly has any rest.

Just a few months ago, the workers say work was even more difficult when they had to work during the rainy season. They say each worker was put to clear weeds along 333 meters of cassava lane per day.

“The grass was as tall as my knees,” says Sem Hen, a 42-year-old mother from Battambang province. “We could not do it, because it was also flooded.”

Despite the hard work, the workers say they can hardly earn enough to eat. For a satisfactory day of work, they are paid 15,000 riel plus one kilo of rice.

“They usually pay us late,” says Sum Phy. “We don’t have enough rice to eat and we don’t have money to pay for our trip back home.”

She says some workers would eat the cassava when they ran out of rice at the risk of being reprimanded by the Chinese supervisors.

“They would blame us in their language,” she says. “They were so angry that the veins on their throats tightened. But, we could not understand it.”

Because of the hard work, Sum Phy says many workers have quit the job at the cassava plantations and have gone to Thailand to look for work.

“It is very hard to work as hired laborers,” Sum Phy says. “If we had our own land, we could plant cassava ourselves.”

If they have a choice, she says the Khmer workers would like to be hired by other fellow Cambodians to work on their rice fields or plantations.

“It’s better to be a servant for a Khmer boss than a Chinese boss,” she says. “For a Khmer boss, we can understand each other.”

The workers say there are many Chinese supervisors working at different sites. Every evening, they would have a meeting to review work performance and to discipline the workers.

“If the Khmer team leader made a mistake, he would have 100,000 riels deducted from his pay,” Sum Phy says.

The workers say the Chinese supervisors would inspect the cassava lanes to make sure the workers have done the job well. “If they are not happy, they would remove the team leader and replace him with another one,” Sum Phy says.

Despite the hard work and the strict rules, the Chinese cassava plantation has provided jobs to hundreds of poor Cambodians from across the country who need work to survive.

 

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