Behind the green mash nets

Often in the lowest paid positions, an estimated 20–40 per cent of the construction workers that are building Phnom Penh are female.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - September 6, 2016: Busy traffic around Independence Monument in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh. Photo: iStock.com / tbradford

Zinc fences and green mash nets wall off construction sites, turning the daily life of construction workers that populate a city invisible.

In Phnom Penh, the sight of zinc fences and green nets attests to a booming real-estate and construction industry in Cambodia. As many as 200,000 workers are hired, mostly as day labourers. Many of them have relocated from rural areas of Cambodia in search for work, with large infrastructure projects and land grabs shrinking habitable spaces and contributing to the making of new urban working class.

An estimated 20–40% of the construction workers are female, often in the lowest paid positions in the construction industry, without access to equal pay for equal work and little voice to advocate for improved working conditions.

The Green Net, an ongoing multi-media project shaping up since 2016, brings to light the injustice female construction workers face behind the green nets in urban Cambodia, giving them voice to tell their life stories, translating them into visual and written narratives.

With support from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the multi-media project is conceptualized and implemented in cooperation with “Meta House,” a Cambodian-German cultural centre based in Phnom Penh and Goethe Institute. FES Connect reached out to Nico Mesterharm, a cultural manager and film maker from Meta House, based in Phnom Penh, about the motivations behind the project, the past and ongoing activities to prompt awareness about the living and working conditions of female workers.

Connect: In December, Meta House hosted a photography exhibition The Green Net, presenting the working and living conditions of thirteen female construction workers in Phnom Penh. What inspired the focus of this exhibition?

Nico Mesterharm: Taking a stroll around Phnom Penh is enough to show anyone that the real estate and construction sector is booming. Investments have risen from US$840 million in 2010 to US$ 2.7 billion in 2013. But most citizens as well as expats or foreign visitors are oblivious to the fact that approximately 30 per cent of the workers on construction sites are women. Women, along with men, are building Phnom Penh and it’s important for them and their families that they are treated fairly and protected.

Since it was founded in 2007, the Cambodian-German Cultural Centre “Meta House” has always put emphasis on gender-related topics in Cambodia. On the long-road ahead, in the fight for gender equality, THE GREEN NET project gives us the chance to observe Cambodia’s recent development through a gendered lens with the aim of contributing to the betterment of the society in a whole.

The exhibition is part of a multi-media project that bears the same title, The Green Net. What does the project entail?

NM: In 2016, Meta House has cooperated with the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES) for the on-going multi-media project THE GREEN NET, which focuses on the working and living conditions of female construction workers in Cambodia. The first project leg was led by two female Cambodian up-and-coming professionals, photographer Sophal Neak and research and blogger Chea Kesorphearom.

Neak Sophal, born in 1989 in Takeo (Cambodia) and a graduate of the Royal University of Fine Arts, is considered one of the rising talents of the Cambodian art scene with a clear and determined vision. In 2013, she won the Angkor Photo Festival, in Siem Reap.

Based on Kesorphearom‘s research, Sophal Neak has been portraying 13 female construction workers on construction sites in and around Phnom Penh. The resulting photos were exhibited as large-sized prints with short captions in English and Cambodian language. Interviews and background information were published on a dedicated bilingual blog (link in English and Khmer). Yon Davy, a Cambodian dancer and choreographer created a contemporary dance piece, inspired by the movements and workflows on construction sites. Yon’s piece was premiered at the exhibition opening on 27 December 2016 at Meta House, attended by a hundred of visitors.

Who are the people behind the project?

NM: In 2016, the project was conceived and conducted by a Cambodian team of female artists and experts, which are already mentioned, Sophal Neak, Chea Kesorphearom and Yon Davy. The Meta House team, under my guidance, supported the project team, where and when necessary. The IT-side of the blog was executed by Israeli programmer Francis Wittenberger.

In 2017, we’ll continue the project with female Cambodian filmmaker Sopheak Sao and female Cambodian journalist Sokunthea Hang in the lead positions.

The project has been supported by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. How has this cooperation come about? Is this the first time you’ve worked with FES?

NM: In 2009, Cambodia’s industry was just beginning to recover. The garment industry accounted for over eighty per cent of all exports. Garments with a value of two billion US dollars were exported per year, mainly to markets in the USA, Europe, Canada and Japan. During that time, Cambodia's garment sector employed more than 300,000 workers. It was – and still is - the main source of paid employment for Cambodian women.

The organizations Better Factories Cambodia/ILO, Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation Singapore (FES), Meta House and its Cambodian film school M.E.T.A. (Media Education and Training Academy) worked together and produced six short documentaries that documented the development of the industry, as well as examined the lives of workers, union representatives, entrepreneurs and a female Cambodian manager. The films, which were screened at around twenty international festivals, tell human-interest stories and educate people on issues in the garment sector, giving more recognition to the industry and broadening public awareness at the same time. All films were compiled on DVD in 2011.

How will The Green Net continue, what is in the pipeline for this year?

NM: In 2017, as Meta House and together with the Cambodian-German Cultural Association (KDKG), we will continue the its successful cooperation with Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES).

With their support, we will work on two short video documentaries, to be screened by Cambodian TV. We will produce a video capturing the dance performance by Yon Davy that was inspired by the movements and workflows on construction sites. The existing blog capturing stories by female construction workers will be extended to include interviews with unionists, entrepreneurs and professionals form the non-governmental sector. Finally, we will have a launch event with a new exhibition and a Facebook campaign to accompany all these planned activities.

The Green Net project will enter its second phase, led by female Cambodian filmmaker Sopheak Sao, female Cambodian journalist Sokunthea Hang and a team of Cambodian professionals, and picking up on the research and achievements of Chea Kesorphearum and Sophal Neak from 2016.

The video team will set out to record compelling personal narratives of Cambodian female construction workers, giving a voice to the women physically constructing development in what has been until recently, one of the poorest nations in the world, at the same time exposing the difficult conditions they face at work and their hopes for the future.

Read here the life stories of female construction workers from the first phase of The Green Net project.

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