Disability Worker in Cambodia


Why did Phearom refuse a job that would double her salary?

Jun 11, 2014

This is Phearom and she is my hero. She is one of the reasons why I still believe that we can do great things in global development.

Phearom is a disability worker in Cambodia. As Phearom’s organisation is facing a funding crisis, they are only able to pay her $200 a month. Recently, she was offered another job that would see her salary double. Amazingly, she turned it down. Why would she do this?

This is what Phearom’s day looks like. She travels by motorbike to the small office, just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where her team members congregate. It’s over 35°C already, but the office doesn’t have air conditioning – only a few fans to keep the staff cool. She brings her own water from home, because they can’t afford a water cooler.

After some planning, she gets back on the motorbike and travels for an hour to meet 11-year-old Ouk Ling.

Ling has cerebral palsy – brain damage that occurs in a young brain around the time of birth. As a result, his movement is affected and his speech is slurred. He’s intelligent and affectionate. In fact, when I accompany Phearom to see him, he bursts into a huge smile and runs towards her to give her a big hug.

Ling bursts into a huge smile and runs towards Phearom to give her a big hug.

Since Phearom has been visiting him, transformational change has occurred in his life. Where he was previously incomprehensible, he can now communicate basic sentences with those around him. His movement has improved as well. He goes to school daily, by riding his bicycle. As his family now understands that he only has problems communicating, they no longer label him as “stupid.”

Phearom has 36 children like Ling to keep up with. Not all of them have had such huge progress as him, of course, but that isn’t through lack of trying. Phearom herself didn’t finish high school. She never went to university and what she has learnt about how to help children with disabilities has been on the job, through 15 years of experience.

She is of the age where most Cambodian women are married and having children. Recently, her mother tried to arrange for her to be married to a local businessman, which would mean quitting her job and helping him with his business. Phearom refused.

“If this man really loved me, why would he stop me from doing the thing that I love the most?” she asks. “Often in Cambodia, people don’t think that women can work in different fields. So, I am even prouder to be a woman working in this job.”

What made Phearom turn down a job with another organisation that would see her salary double?

Recently, she has been part of a pilot program improving her knowledge of speech therapy, with the aim to help children with communication and swallowing problems. She estimates that up to 70% of the children she sees have problems with communication, while up to 60% cannot swallow food and liquid safely. The latter can cause pneumonias and often death.

In fact, at least two children that Phearom visited have died in this manner. She describes how one of them literally choked to death on his own phlegm because his swallow was not strong enough to allow a safe passage into his stomach.

This weighs heavily on Phearom.

“Before, I was not clear on how to work with children with communication and swallowing problems, but when I had skills on speech therapy, it made it easier for me to make decisions on my therapy,” she tells me.

“I refused the job that paid more because I have had the opportunity to learn about speech therapy. That convinced me to stay.”

World statistics state that only 13% of people are actively engaged in their jobs. When I worked as a physiotherapist in a public hospital in Australia a decade ago, one colleague was incredibly inventive in the ways that he would avoid doing work. He would either disappear to the local shopping centre, or hang out in the emergency fire stairwell, playing Snake on his Nokia for hours, rather than see the patients he had been assigned to. I often thought it would be less effort for him to just do his job, rather than coming up with inventive ways not to.

Despite her lack of education, Phearom’s perspective on disability and patient care trumps most people that I’ve worked with in the past. She just gets it. Without a high salary, and without high status, Phearom is doing this job because she really does care. Any investment that we put into her, in terms of training, time and energy, we’re going to get back a hundred fold.

The current situation is by no means perfect. Even with my now fading memory of good physiotherapy practices, I can tell that Phearom lacks a lot of skills in therapy that prevent her from doing a great job. She isn’t reaching her potential. But that isn’t anything to do with her – it’s to do with lack of resources.

I started this piece saying Phearom is one of the main reasons why I still believe in global development.

What we see with Phearom is the ultimate development dream. Cambodian people helping Cambodian people. Surely, this is what global development should be all about.

Our role, as foreigners working in this field, should be to help local people do their jobs better. To give people the resources to be effective. And yet somehow, amongst the billions of dollars spent on aid and well-meaning yet ineffective small projects that we start, this often gets forgotten. Nonsensically, we restrict funds so that local organisations cannot spend them on staff salaries. Invest in people like Phearom and great things can happen.

First Published in WhyDev.