“I Don’t Want to Be Famous. I Want Our People to Get Enough Rice”: The Messenger Band Interview

"I Don

“My name is Saem, and the name of my group is the Messenger Band,” the singer more formally known as Vun Em explains. We are in Phnom Penh’s Meta-House, where four members of the six-member Messenger Band are about to give a quick a cappella concert to the reporters ex-pats, and tourists gathered.

It’s not their usual venue. The Messenger Band was formed by the Cambodian NGO Women’s Agenda for Change in 2005 to bring the concerns of the young women who move to the city to earn money for their families back to the provinces. They write songs in the traditional folk style, and choreograph moves to accompany their laments, and villagers are often riveted: the subjects of these songs are their daughters, their nieces, their friends.

The subjects of the songs are members of the Messenger Band. All former or current garment factory workers themselves, the varying group of women that perform as the band are well versed in the issues that affect women in Cambodia. “We are tired but we say nothing,” one song goes. “We are hard working and much of this money I earn is dollars to help my mother.”

Press play to listen to author Anne Elizabeth Moore interview the Messenger Band:

Press play to listen to author Anne Elizabeth Moore interview the Messenger Band:

But the message of the band is clear: “The voice of garment workers must be used to shout to tell all Cambodian women that to be a servant is very difficult,” they sing in tones unheard in American pop tunes, and all the more affective because of it. “We have no freedom and no rights.”

Vun Em, the 25-year-old front person for the band – at least for the night – took a few moments before their late January concert to answer a few questions.

How long have you been doing the band?

Vun Em: I work in the band for five years, start from 2005.

And you used to work in the garment factory?

Vun Em: Yes, I worked in the factory from – I started in 2000, until 2005. And from 2005 until now, I work with the band.

You are with the band full time?

Vun Em: Yes.

How do you make a living working full time with a political band in Cambodia?

Vun Em: I have some support from the donors. Women’s Agenda For Change, they created this big group and they provide some support to Messenger Band. Not much, just small.

Enough?

Vun Em: Yeah.

Why do you think it’s important for garment factory workers to start a band?

Vun Em: I think it’s really important because I can really speak out about the situation when I was working in the factory. I saw a lot of problems with the workers in the factory. I think that it’s good if we write a song that educates the people. And also do advocacy through song.

What did you see in the factories that you think needs to be changed?

Vun Em: Oh, that’s a good question. First, I want to see change, like see the garment worker respected by the law and supported by the government and the investors. It’s important for investors: they have to follow the law in Cambodia and they have to respect worker’s rights.

How is the law not being followed in Cambodia?

Vun Em: A lot of [ways], like the forced overtime and the low wage. They have to ask permission for when they have to take leave or when they get sick. It’s really difficult to take leave. And sometimes, they are dismissed by the company because they cannot go to work, like when they get sick, they have to go to the hospital. But the factory owners, they don’t allow them to go. Some factories, when the workers fall unconscious in the factory, when they awake from unconsciousness, they tell the worker that, “you have to promise that you will not [lose consciousness] again, otherwise, you lose the job.”

So, if people faint, they have to promise that they won’t faint again?

Vun Em: Yes, they have to promise. They cannot unconscious again. Otherwise you will lose the job. And the workers are so scared, they just promise the leaders.

Are you nervous being an activist in Cambodia?

Vun Em: Hmmm, a little bit. But if we don’t stand up, no one hear the story. And that’s why we have to stand up and share some information about the poor people in Cambodia. We have to stand up and speak out, otherwise we die.

Yes, the workers, they welcome us and they tell us, Oh I have heard your song, through the radio and sometimes through the TV – but not often on the TV.

Do you want to become a famous pop star?

Vun Em: A lot of people ask me, why don’t you go to the TV and sing the song and become a famous star? I don’t want to become a famous star. I don’t want to be a famous person, but I want my song, I want my information to become recognized by the big people, and be respected. And provide the rights to those people. For me, I don’t want to be famous, but I want our people here to get enough rice, enough food to eat, and they have the right to demand their rights.

As garment factories close, more and more women enter the sex industry by working at the karaoke bars. You have a song about this.

Vun Em: When the factories close down, some girls will go to become entertainment workers, and HIV will spread out around. But why don’t [the NGOs] care about their living life? Why they don’t care about their family? Why they don’t care about the security of those people? Why they care only about HIV? [She starts to cry.] I don’t know, I don’t understand.

We also care about HIV, but you have to think about the lives of the people, not only HIV. If the people don’t have enough food to eat, if they don’t have enough education, if they don’t have good health, how can they prevent themselves from the HIV? They don’t have time to think about HIV, they only have time to think, I need food, I need food. All the time.

What can people in the United States do to support the factory workers?

Vun Em: I want them to support health care to garment workers, and the poor people in Cambodia. Because health care and food is really, really needed.

One more thing: I want to let those people in the United States be aware that the worker situation in Cambodia – it’s really bad. And I want the investors … to respond to the workers, and our laws in Cambodia. Not only put pressure to our government, put pressure to our people here. You have to respect our law and our people. And also you can support our country and our government and our people, not only judge. You have to learn, you have to understand what is the real situation in Cambodia.

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“A Karaoke Girl’s Life” (song written by the Messenger Band):

I have had bad fate in my life since I was born; my life has been different from others. Always facing unhappiness, I bear the family’s burden; I bear the shame and sell my voice.

I became a karaoke girl I sing in the karaoke bar I don’t want to be here but I am poor. Please don’t blame me for being bad I have tried to live in this darkness.
Though I work day and night and never resting, I am still poor I was in debt to the owner. If I take rest, they reduce my money.

The tears of a karaoke girl I am living as a slave, without freedom. I was mistreated by the owner and forced to serve clients.

“Voice of Garment Workers” (song written by the Messenger Band):

The voice of garment workers must be used to shout to tell all Cambodian women that to be a servant is very difficult. They curse, they blame us and say we are bad girls, but we have no freedom and no rights.

We are all garment workers, we live in bad conditions, we struggle with difficulty, we are tired but we say nothing, we are hard working and much of this money I earn is dollars to help my mother.

The song that we sing is about the real life of garment workers, please pity us and consider the life of garment workers. How we are suffering? We are faced with suffering and problems because the factory owners exploit us.

When the workers are in trouble, who can help to solve the problems? Where is justice? When I need you, why do you ignore me?