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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Safety vests, Helmets and Flip Flops

My experience in Phnom Penh is in part defined by the sound of metal on rock. The young man taking a small power drill to loosen the smooth concrete on the sidewalk contrasts with the huge jackhammer mounted on a truck, taking out walls with the repeated blow of a thick and narrow blunt instrument. On one project men stood atop walls of an old colonial building with sledgehammers, beating down slowly. Just this morning the worker with the grinder was smoothing concrete edges, showering dust and small rocks onto the hallway outside my apartment door.

Screeching. Whirring. Rumbling. Huge machinery with rapid-fire pneumatic bursts. Over and over again, the destruction of rock by a single point. While before I was witnessing sites as I walked or zoomed past in tuk-tuks, now I have active construction sites near both work and at home.
From the elevated walkway at the hospital,September 2015.

The same view in January 2016.


A couple months ago  the owner of the building behind my apartment (it is so close I can touch it as I turn into the door of my apartment) and the Ministry of Health right next to the hospital both decided to launch major expansion projects. The noise ranges from a relatively pleasant hammering on wood to the long steady grind of an engine. The shouts of workers and the  pounding, screaming and general labor of drills are now normal. Last week, the workmen at the hospital repeated dropped rebar and metal supports that clanked and crashed, adding a whole new punctuation to the work day.

These trucks show up around town every d
The dust is omnipresent and gritty; a fine fairy dirt that leads to bouts of sneezing; daily dusting is warranted but I have limited energy for it. On the streets, it's common to see the combination of concrete pumper and truck extending high into the air. the two massive front wheels lifted off the ground and the pipe extended high into the air, filling pilings of rebar.

  What I wrote abou18 months ago has only increased in frenzy. In  BKK1, a dignified neighborhood that was the enclave of expatriates and tycoons, a lovely old wooden house with prolific palms and hanging orchids stands beleaguered, surrounded my concrete construction sites on all sides. A “For Sale” sign is displayed prominently, perhaps a notice of mounting frustration or just speculative hope. Throughout the city, some sites are busy and others are waiting for the next cash infusion.

A roof replacement of an old
Colonial building. 
Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, are in an unprecedented building boom. Investments in construction increased to 3 billion dollars in 2015, a 30% increase since last year. In the first half of 2015, Phnom Penh city received notice of 694 construction projects of which 90% were "high-rises" intended for the wealthy.

I always look for the workers. They labor in dirty clothing, hats and scarves that cover their heads and faces. They relocate from their rice fields for the cash, grateful for the $2-$5 a day they may receive. At the site near the hospital, their helmets are perched atop, the reflective safety vests gleaming in the afternoon sun. Their feet, in simple flip flop slippers, are vulnerable as they rest on a grid of rebar waiting for the concrete. The dude in the button-down shirt shows up once and a while, but nothing seems to change except the height of the building.
Pool closed for 3 weeks while
they painted at the gym. Bamboo
scaffolding secured with plastic
ties is the norm here. 
While most are working during the day, there are some that labor into the evening. The bright burn of welding flashes and ebbs in the darkness of the site, shadowy men swinging around on the scaffolding. A friend complains that the site near her has allowed an all night shift; she has not slept well for months, Communities of workers make do on the ground floor of their workplace, where they camp out during the construction. They hang laundry, sing in the shower on the street side and play cards on simple wooden platforms by the light of a single lightbulb. The toddlers play naked in the sand piles, one holding an old drill bit in his mouth like a cigar.

This rapidly developing Phnom Pen has been heralded as the advent of the next golden age for this tattered country. There are concerns about a bubble: who will live in these places?  is this rapid pace of growth sustainable? Like many of the shiny new buildings, this rapid and shoddy development masks the inequities of corruption and exploitation. My visitors exclaim, "Phnom Penh is booming!" 

These buildings are built on the back of poor people. With a worker's life valued at $2,500, it is easier for the bosses to pay the families than it is to implement safety standards. The tycoons and investors are rich with hope and optimism. The poor will take their meager cash back to the province. This is the cycle of life in Phnom Penh for now.

Just yesterday,  I noticed these large palms on the roof.
Are they comfortable there so close to the sky? I don't think a crane hoisted them up,
they were likely carried up the stairs by strong young men.