Early one morning in mid-May, 39 people, mostly garment factory workers, crammed into a 15-seat minivan in Cambodia. It was a journey they made every day, traveling from their rural community in the southeast of the country to a sprawling industrial zone about 20 miles away, where they made clothes for various major western brands.
Except this time, they didn't make it to work. Less than an hour after they set out, a speeding tourist bus pulled out of the opposite lane and smashed into the van head on, killing 15 of those on board instantly. Three more died within hours and another died in intensive care a few days later.
The dead, mostly young women, served as a grim illustration of the perils faced by the half a million people employed in Cambodia's garment trade, which generates an estimated $6 billion per year. While the exploitative conditions and dire safety standards in the southeast Asian clothing industry have been much publicized, what workers have to do to get to and from the factories is actually more dangerous than anything they undergo while they are inside them.
'We see pigs transported in the same manner here'
Factory workers earning just a few dollars a day have little choice but to pile into minivans or flatbed trucks often driven by unlicensed drivers on dangerous roads, every morning and night. A study released earlier this year by the Cambodian Ministry of Labor's National Social Security Fund reported 73 garment workers died in crashes during their commutes last year, a near 10 percent rise on the 67 killed in 2013.
While up to 40 people using a single vehicle is common, twice as many will clamber aboard in times of need, says Joel Preston, a consultant at NGO Community Legal Education Center.
"We see pigs transported in the same manner here," Preston told VICE News.
Communities have built up near the industrial zones where factories have been set up, and vehicles often transport multiple generations from the same family among their passengers.
Garment worker Morn Sreyvorn, who was hurt in the crash, counted five of her family members among the dead, as well as seven more injured. "I lost so many things all of a sudden, the most precious being my husband and my relatives," the 27-year-old told VICE News. "I won't go back to work in the factory."
'It's like pulling teeth making the government fulfil its obligation'
Though workers' rights advocates have succeeded in pushing the government to deem such incidents workplace accidents — guaranteeing compensation to the injured or to the families of those killed — securing pay-outs is a torturous process says Dave Welsh, Cambodia director for the international labor rights NGO Solidarity Center.
"In every situation I've been involved in, and I've been involved in a lot, it's like pulling teeth making the government fulfil its obligation," Welsh told VICE News.
The national minimum wage currently guarantees garment workers $128 per month — though many earn around $150 by putting in overtime. According to Preston, that basic wage is just $8 above the poverty line in capital Phnom Penh, and was set despite a 2013 study conducted by a task force made up of 21 government, industry, and union representatives stating that workers needed between $157 and $177 to meet their basic needs.
On top of their wages, workers receive monthly health bonuses of $5 and transport bonuses of up to $10. Yet passengers from the minibus who spoke to VICE News said they paid $20 per month for their ride.
According to Preston, even when the bonus is enough to cover higher quality transport, workers will choose overcrowded vehicles because their meager wages force them to take risks.
"They have to get into those cars, they have to get onto those trucks, because they just don't have the money to be able to satisfy all of their basic needs, and need to cut corners wherever they can," he said.
But industry representatives reject such claims.
"That is an absolutely absurd argument," said Ken Loo, Secretary General of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC). "They don't have enough to pay for proper transportation, but most of them have mobile phones and a lot of them have the latest mobile phones."
According to Loo, claims by those injured in the crash they were paying $20 per month for their transport are "nonsense."
"I honestly doubt if there is anyone willing to pay double the market rate," he told VICE News, saying most workers paid between $10 and $12 for transport.
'They understand that workers are poor and can't afford anything else'
Regardless of the exact cost, the dangers being faced by workers on the roads are beyond doubt, and while workers earn so little, it remains difficult for authorities to prevent vehicle overcrowding.
"The police don't enforce the laws because they understand that workers are poor and can't afford anything else," Cambodian road safety specialist Chakriya Ear told VICE News.
In the search for an answer to the transport dilemma, workers' right advocates have called for initiatives to be introduced such as the free bus service now on offer to garment workers in Bangalore, India, which is paid for by the factories.
According to Carin Lefler, a coordinator for the NGO Clean Clothes Campaign, such initiatives prove it is possible to make the journey to work safer. Costs could be taken up by the brands, she said, which should be seen "as the principal employer."
The top five brands sourcing from Cambodia — where 95 percent of exports are garments, accounting for 13 percent of the country's total GDP — are H&M, Gap, Levi Strauss & Co, Adidas, and Target.
"They actually do have the means to contribute to safe transportation. If it was a part of their payment of goods, for example, then it could include the brands contributing to safe transportation," she told VICE News.
'If consumers are as concerned... as they appear to be, they can put their money where their mouth is'
Making the brands foot the bill would also welcomed by Welsh, though he also said more effectively enforcing compensation claims and placing greater impetus on the brands to pay them would have an even greater impact.
"That's probably the main driver to getting them more involved in the future to make sure these accidents don't happen," he said.
While Ken Loo argues that any increases in costs would simply see brands taking their business to less regulated markets, he does agree brands, as well as retailers and consumers, could play a key role in securing a safer future for workers.
"If consumers, wherever they may be in the Western world, are as concerned as the rights groups make them out to be, or as they appear to be, they can put their money where their mouth is," he said, suggesting that simply rounding shop prices up to the nearest dollar could have a momentous effect on workers.
"If the retailer passes down those five cents, these workers' wages could double," he said.
Additional reporting by Taing Vida.
Follow Charles Parkinson on Twitter: @charlesparkinsn