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AECOM sees hope for Cambodian women in construction industry

AECOM sees hope for Cambodian women in construction industry

 March 11, 2019

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Karen Britton is a Technical Director with the AECOM aviation team in St. Albans, United Kingdom. Ahead of International Women’s Day, she visited Cambodia with a colleague to learn more about the country’s construction industry.

The industry in Cambodia is booming and, with the real estate sector driving growth in cities like Phnom Penh, construction workers are in high demand.

Women make up 30% of the country’s construction workforce. However, Karen discovered they are often treated as inferior to their male colleagues.

On the trip, Karen and her colleague Louise Marron, Corporate Social Responsibility, UK&I, worked with the charity CARE Cambodia, an international development organization fighting global poverty with a special focus on working with women and girls, to support their work with vulnerable women in the country’s construction industry supply chain.

Funded through the AECOM Blueprint Travel Grant program, a corporate responsibility initiative that funds employee-driven volunteer service trips in partnership with nonprofit organizations, Karen and Louise spent nearly two weeks in Cambodia.

Karen Britton meeting the women responsible for steel bar bending on a construction site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Sharing experiences and knowledge

The aim of the trip was to share their experiences of working in the UK construction sector and make recommendations for improvements to help support change.

“Women in Cambodia’s construction industry face unsafe working environments, poor labor rights, unequal pay, sexual harassment and extremely long working hours,” says Karen.

“Female workers often do not have any personal identification or evidence of their employment. They often have no contract or knowledge of who their employer is. Additionally, with accommodation often linked to their job, if anything goes wrong they can suddenly find themselves without a home for their family.”

In contrast, men are offered opportunities for career progression, regularly receiving double what women are paid for similar work. Most concerning, according to Karen, is the lack of health and safety for female construction workers.

“Men are often supplied with basic equipment, while the few women that are offered similar can have the price docked from their wages,” she explains.

“At one construction site I visited, women were asked to do risky jobs, like climbing high scaffolds without a safety harness and many were wearing flip flops or socks instead of the steel toe cap boots that are industry standard requirements. They are also forced to share welfare facilities with men at the untidy, hot, busy and noisy sites.”

While Karen was shocked by these conditions, she was also encouraged by the initiatives that CARE Cambodia is supporting to help engender change. Karen visited a health and safety training session for women covering the importance of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“It was humbling to see these women, many with babies in their arms, using their only day off to make things better for themselves and their families,” she says.

Positive steps and change ahead

At the end of the trip, Karen and Louise had a positive meeting with Secretary of State and Minister for Labor and Vocational training, His Excellency Huy Han Song. They discussed the importance of government support for international standards such as the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and the Equator Principles as a first step towards protecting the most vulnerable. This can then act as a catalyst for open discussions with investors about supply chain accountability for labor rights.

Karen concludes: “In Cambodia, I witnessed the truly damaging impact of imbalance in the construction sector supply chain. By sharing insights and international best practices, there is a real global opportunity not only to improve the productivity and growth in emerging economies but also to empower their female workforce and accelerate sustainable change.”

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