It was a wet morning during Cambodia’s rainy season in 2018 when garment worker Srey Meak and one of her colleagues were riding a motorcycle to work in Kampong Cham Province. Suddenly, a car from the opposite direction hit their vehicle, pinning them to the ground. Srey Meak was hospitalized for two weeks with serious leg injuries.
“My head hit the car in the crash. Luckily, I wore a helmet, so there was no serious injury to my head,” she said.
Fortunately, Srey Meak’s factory had been encouraging workers to purchase helmets as of one of the measures promoted by the Transportation Working Group (TWG), a task force of brands and development partners, facilitated by Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), looking to improve road safety across the country.
BFC, brands and partners — including Road Safety Experts AIP Foundation, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and the Solidarity Center — first established the TWG in 2016 with the vision that “all garment and footwear workers travel safely to and from work, all the time.”
The pilot project has been the initial step to a larger movement whose momentum has increased over time and served as an important collaboration to share information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid the current crisis, BFC has again joined hands with its TWG partners, developing and disseminating more than 11,000 posters and banners to be displayed on vehicles. Through a mix of cartoons and messages, the material illustrates precautionary health practices both workers and drivers should observe to minimize risk during the pandemic.
“The primary poster is about what workers should do before getting on a truck, like washing their hands and wearing masks and the phone number for medical advice if they feel unwell,” said Arron Goldman, TWG coordinator. “Other posters target drivers, recommending to sanitize and wipe down all vehicle surfaces before and after people come on and off.”
Additional posters are meant to remind workers of what to do once they get off and enter the factory, like washing their hands for at least 20 seconds, among other instructions.
The posters also indicate how workers should behave once they get back home. Before hugging their children or saying hello to their parents, relatives or to the other people in their dorm, for example, they should immediately take a shower — then put fresh clothes on to avoid the possible spread of infection.
“The work has been a good way to demonstrate what is possible with the collaboration of workers, drivers, factories and brands, and now we are supporting the next phase, the ‘Commuting Safety for Cambodian Workers’ program, funded by the U.S.Agency for International Development (USAID),” said Louise Goldman, program development coordinator in Cambodia for the Solidarity Center, an international worker rights organization.
According to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), 1,554 road crashes involving garment workers were recorded last year in Cambodia. In them, 50 people were killed, 341 suffered serious injuries, while another 1,651 suffered moderate injuries.
Road crashes have devastating effects on workers, their families, as well as on factories and the reputation of the industry. Initiatives like the TWG look to challenge the status quo and improve safety across the board.
“Poor driving behaviour and practices, coupled with the state of the vehicles, are significant causes of road crashes across the country,” says Goldman. “Collective means of transport are on average 20 years old, lack proper seating, and are often overloaded.”
Between May 2018 and April 2019, the group implemented a one-year pilot project, reaching around 26,000 beneficiaries, including workers, factory management, transport drivers, associations and trade union representatives in five factories across three provinces.
“AIP Foundation designed a unique program and decided to establish road safety working committees at factories similar to Better Work’s worker management groups,” says Goldman. “Working group members were the champions of identifying issues within their factory, assessing infrastructure, whether people were wearing helmets during their commute, how many workers were using trucks, where these trucks dropped workers, and whether these were safe spots.”
Based on the pilot project final report, the initiative has not only helped improve workers’ knowledge about how to keep themselves safe on the road, but also expanded drivers’ knowledge concerning road safety. Changes in the drivers’ attitudes and behaviour towards safer driving have also been recognized as tangible achievements.
“There was a very beautiful moment when a factory representative we worked with came to me and said that the number of crashes of their employees went from 156 the year before to 15 after our intervention. This was really exciting, and the fact that he was excited about this result was even more rewarding,” Goldman said.