Development driving demand for guards

By: Charles Rollet and Sum Manet

The private security industry is making big gains off the back of new mall, office and hotel developments

Phnom Penh’s private security sector is witnessing a mini-boom as new mall and office developments boost demand for security guards. And with the entry threshold low – firms need a licence to operate but security guards themselves do not need to pass a test or have any professional training – businesses have been aggressively hiring personnel.

The $200 million Aeon Mall, which opened in May last year, has been a major contributor. The mall hired 140 security guards in one go, and has increased capacity to 200 guards during the holiday season, said Aeon Cambodia director Yajima Makoto.

According to Makoto, security guards at Aeon are trained in fire prevention and CPR, on top of their regular guard duties. The mall also has a small police station on site, to supplement these guards and ensure quick access to local authorities when needed.

Late 2013 saw the opening of another large luxury mall, TK Avenue, and Malaysian retail group Parkson is expected to open another department store later this year.

John Muller, director of security firm GSS, said the rapid growth in the retail sector has given a definite push to expanding operations in the security industry. “It’s helping our business, no question about that,” he said. “Both from the physical standpoint in terms of security guards as well as car parking, electronic security systems – that’s a big ticket item.” Muller, who arrived in Cambodia in 1991, started Cambodia’s first private security firm in 1995.

According to Muller, Phnom Penh’s security sector shifted from providing security to NGOs and the UN in the ’90s to garment factories and office complexes in the 2000s, with a more recent focus on high-end malls and other large-scale projects since last year.

“You’re seeing now the modernisation of the city,” he said.

According to Sebastian Power, Indochina manager of British security firm PCS, the Kingdom’s top-end, mostly foreign-owned security firms employ 8,000 to 10,000 workers, and the number is growing.

For PCS itself, the opening last year of large projects such as Aeon helped the company up its employee count by about 300, bringing it to about 1,200 staff, although Power predicted a lull this year until the next round of megaprojects comes online in 2016.

But mega retail projects haven’t been the only contributors to the recent upswing in the sector. In the tourist town of Siem Reap, a growth in hotels – particularly boutique establishments – has also contributed to this rise, but with the growth has come increased competition.

Van Borey, security supervisor at GPS security, said the recent flourishing of security companies in the tourist hotspot has increased competition and caused a slowdown in his company’s business.

“There are about 26 security companies now in Siem Reap; one year ago there were maybe 15 or 16,” he said.

Security guards at GPS make $140 a month for working 12-hour shifts seven days a week, while those who take two days off can expect $130.

But increased tourism was not the only reason behind this growth, said Borey.

“It increased also because it’s easy to establish a company,” he said.

While the going has been good for the industry, it has had to face a few challenges, such as the lack of a system to conduct background checks on employees.

Add to this the problem of a lack of skilled applicants.

“Because of the growing economy, you need more intake, but there aren’t enough people out there – some of our people get poached by our competitors,” said Peter Ang, PCS Cambodia’s general manager.

Ang’s firm pays guards $150 to $220 a month, depending on the length of their shifts, but with the increased competition, salary expectations have put pressure on employee retention.

“For $10 [more], they will jump ship,” Ang said.

While salaries for the more professional security sector may be reasonable compared to the garment sector’s minimum wage of $128, the job entails long hours, and high turnover, Ang said, remains a stubborn issue.

Chan Saroeun, a 45-year-old security guard at Aeon Mall, makes $200 a month, and said the work was difficult and the money too little to live on in Phnom Penh.

But he worried most about being fired, as his company was unforgiving of mistakes.

“The previous security guard was fired for sleeping,” he said.