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Report From Cambodia’s Garment Factories
Meet the international working class - the faceless laborers that likely had a hand in stitching together your mid-range jeans

Report From Cambodia’s Garment Factories

Meet the international working class - the faceless laborers that likely had a hand in stitching together your mid-range jeans

Meet the international working class – the faceless laborers that likely had a hand in stitching together your mid-range jeans, your jaunty parka or your favorite silky smooth T-shirt: They are super giggly and sharing snacks in the back of a converted military pickup truck over their lunch break.

In fact, they’re downright cute as buttons, and make about that, too. Cambodia offers a national monthly minimum wage for garment workers of $50. This is still higher than in some countries, but Cambodia’s economic boom means that prices and wages in almost all other sectors have risen rapidly in recent years. In 2009, the Cambodian Labour Union Federation and the National Institute of Statistics determined that the minimum wage to support the conditions factory workers lived under was $93 per month. Yet, recent talks to grant laborers a living wage stalled immediately.

“It is too much money to consider when the economic crisis has affected the sector,” the president of the Free Trade Union of Workers Chea Mony admitted to the press mast month. Ninety-three garment factories closed and 60 suspended work in 2009, leaving 68,190 workers – close to 20 percent of the force at last tally – out of jobs, according to official Ministry of Labour records. Many women, with few other opportunities in the developing nation, took jobs as sex workers. The so-called entertainment industry grew rapidly, and some fear HIV transmission rates are on the rise too.

In the truck, though, no one’s concerned. Six of them, matching kerchiefs tied over their brows, nestle together in the back, three in the front, all in respite from the heat of the torrential noonday Cambodian sun, not eating very much because they can’t afford to. They each have smooth, light brown skin; bright, charming eyes; and luscious, dark hair. They could be models or – given some time and the funds to study – accountants, scientists or lawyers. Instead, they are garment workers, but I’ve come to find out if they have a contingency plan.

“Are you worried that your factory will close down?” I ask the group, and they laugh.

“Not worried,” my translator explains. “They would be happy.”

Concerned there may be a language problem, I ask again, more shrill: “What will you do if the factory closes down?”

I’m not sure what I’m expecting – panic, acknowledgment or a fully worked-out five-point plan – but more laughter is not it.

“Forever,” the translator explains over their guffaws, meaning that the factory will never close, and they will continue working there until they cannot work anymore. “Not stop,” he clarifies. They’re still giggling, but it’s no longer funny.

I do know this: I did not expect the choice among a return to poverty, a life in the entertainment industry and garment work – the occupation of around 300,000 women in Cambodia, and the nation’s third-biggest money maker – to be so bleak. So bleak it’s funny.

The tittering pack of five girls and solitary boy in the back of the military vehicle – to represent the gender ratio in the Cambodian textile industry we would need five more girls, but there isn’t room in the truck – touch each others’ arms affectionately and tell animated stories. They wear matching kerchiefs to tie back their hair. It’s a factory requirement that creates a monotone visual on the floor, and allows bosses to identify workers easily. Plus, it gives them another reason to fire infringers.

I am traveling with my partner, an academic who writes about jeans. When we approach, the group quiets, but only for a moment.

Later, we find out that our translator and friend Mr. Lee told them we were not reporters, so they would talk to us. He explained that we are just tourists who like factories. Still, they fear being fired without the meager stipend a factory closure would bring, so they do not give their names. To further protect them, I will not name their place of employment, either.

This particular group sews and packs jeans for sale in Mexico, Panama, China, Canada and the US. Such information wouldn’t usually be available to workers in individual factories, but this group, at the end stages of production, gets to read the boxes. (Many garments, jeans in particular, go through several different international ports before they are completed. This leaves most workers completely in the dark about where their handiwork is retailed – and sometimes, what the final product looks like.)

Most of the clothes produced in Cambodia – 70 percent – are intended for US export. This means that if these same workers were doing these same jobs under US standards – that is, if things switched up a bit and either the pay scale was exported or the entire labor force was imported – they would be earning about 30 times what they do now.

Each member of this group makes $55 per month base pay. The slight increase over the minimum gives them bragging rights, and may quell some protests, but to get enough to send $50 or $60 back home to the provinces, this group works seven days per week, which can bring in as much as $100. (Around 20 percent of the country’s 14 million people are estimated to rely on the pay of a garment worker.)

Women who’ve left the factories say that forced overtime is common, but the workers in the truck do not complain, as jobs cuts and layoffs are often threatened in retaliation. Many work through illness, fearing the loss of wages or of their job. (In-factory health clinics are sometimes available, but lines are often too long and the care too insubstantial to make the wait worthwhile.) One woman tells me of a regular occurrence on the factory floor: that a worker will faint in the stifling heat. This is a fireable offense in the garment industry.

This group doesn’t know how much the jeans they make sell for, which is probably good. A reporter friend told me once about a plane that crashed into the ocean near Kep. Packed and priced T-shirts and jeans washed ashore, and the locals who found them couldn’t believe their eyes. They asked her, “This is how much people pay?” One was laughing so hard, my reporter friend was concerned he would asphyxiate.

None of the women in this group yet has children, and each lives with up to four other girls in a small concrete room. Advancement is unlikely, and the garment factory workers realize it. “Do any of you want to be managers?” we ask, and Mr. Lee translates their raucous response: “Oh, they would like.”

Female managers at the factories are rare – by some estimates only 6 percent of the managers in the country are women, most are rumored to be related to owners. When asked what it would take to advance through the hierarchy, the girls basically agree: Time. Time to study accounting, earn a high school diploma, attend university. Plus, they add sadly, “the owners only recruit high quality.”

Some factory workers supplement incomes with piecework, and a very few work already in the entertainment sector. The most popular of the part-time job, though, according to the Women’s Agenda for Change, is money lending: loaning other factory workers a few bucks under high interest rates.

These workers, though, are just too tired. When we ask, “what do you do after work?” they look at us askance.

“They sleep,” Mr. Lee says.

Undaunted, we try again: “Have you visited the city center?” It is 20 minutes away, a trip that might cost 12 and a half cents on the moto of a friendly driver.” Two years ago,” one says. The others are silent.

“A few months ago, these were all empty,” our translator and guide Mr. Lee explains as he leads us through the dank, but lively concrete caverns that house the garment factory employees who reside and work along the southernmost edge of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“Now,” he says, “they fill.”

Mr. Lee has brought us home to meet his wife, who just quit the factories. The walkway is jam-packed with motorcycles, toys, drying clothes. The walls are crumbling. The only security system is the massive padlocks on each door. He opens the door to one of the flats and, in Khmenglish – a mix of Cambodian and English that adds gratuitous S’s and sees no need for verb tenses – asks us to step into his home.

It is small. The tile floors are utilitarian enough, but the walls crumble and mold with years of abuse. Most walls do not see as much human contact as these: but when three people sleep, cook, eat, read, wash and dry laundry, relax, bathe, play – and, if the inhabitants are lucky, store their motorcycle – in a space approximately eight feet by ten feet, the walls are going to show wear.

The tiny abode is occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Lee and their three-year-old son. They pay $25 per month. Utilities aren’t included, and add another $5 to $10 every month. Water for cooking and drinking must be purchased separately. (Rents vary, depending on the size of the room and the number of people sharing it, but it’s hard to find a place to sleep near the factories for less than $15 per month, before utilities.)

With overtime, a worker can bring in as much as $85 to $120, but a 2009 Cambodian Institute of Development Study found that workers earn an average of $79 per month. After rent and utilities, and the $50 most send back to the provinces every month, garment workers are left with between $4 and $9 per month for food, in a city where it’s hard to eat on less than $1.25 per day. It’s a particularly tight fit for families with kids to feed.

A few months ago, despite losing his own job with an NGO, Mr. Lee asked his wife to leave the garment factory job because, although they needed the money, they missed their son. There is no childcare available to workers and young Lee Hira was living in the provinces with grandma so they could both work. Visits were rare.

Now Hira is home – such as it is – and the family’s together. When the boy is old enough for school, Mrs. Lee will look for more work in the factory. She was worried a few months ago, when there were so many open rental units in their building.

But now, she thinks, things are looking up.

“Can we go inside the factory?” I ask Mr. Lee after we’ve left his home. We’re out on the street in front of another factory hoping, like wallflowers at a high-school dance, that someone approaches us.

Cambodia got into the garment sector in the mid-1990s to take advantage of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, a quota system that offered developing nations a fair shot at exporting apparel to the lucrative US market. At the time, inspections and unions and oversight of factories all flourished. This allowed Cambodia to proclaim itself “sweatshop-free,” even as details of conditions in some factories painted a less-than-rosy picture.

At the end of 2004, however, the Multi-Fibre Agreement ended, and the textile industry in Cambodia panicked. Some closed up shop immediately, some simply laid off workers. Many that stayed open doubled workload but not pay, changed contracts to make it easier to fire employees or simply stopped meeting workers’ demands for rights.

The good thing about the “sweatshop-free” aura that still clings to the garment industry is that factories are supposed to allow outside monitors to come through for inspections. In practice, however, only 300 factories are registered with the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program, which sends only 12 inspectors out, in pairs and with advance appointments, to monitor compliance.

Mr. Lee denies my request without saying no. “They scared you want to take a photo,” he says. “The owner of the garment factory – sometimes they scared, some foreigner want to know if they are breaking regulations.”

They should be. During the 2008 inspections, the most recent year for which reports are available, Better Factories Cambodia found only 97 percent compliance with the minimum wage pay standards for regular workers, and 70 percent compliance for casual workers. Legal requirements regulating payment for maternity leave were only adhered to 74 percent of the time, sick leave paid out 66 percent of the time and a lowly 8 percent of the companies inspected adhered to laws limiting compulsory overtime. Half the companies failed to meet basic health and safety requirements.

But while Mr. Lee and my traveling companion are otherwise engaged, I meander closer to the factory door. A friendly guard waves me in. “Hi!” she says enthusiastically, but this turns out to be the only English she knows.

A not-so-friendly guard, standing with four uniformed pals, grips his rifle in greeting. I gesture toward the two picnic tables full of eating women and turn on the charm. “I’m starving, what kind of food do you serve here?” I ask him.

He laughs and pokes his chin toward the door. “We don’t make anything here,” he says. “You must leave.”

A whole family on a motorbike stops when we wave. A four-year old girl stands on the seat in front of her mother and behind her father, who steers. None wear helmets. The first law requiring them was passed recently, but only about half the riders on the street wear them still. They are from Kandal province. On their motorcycle, a trip home takes about two hours.

They tell us they pay $25 per month rent, utilities included – which means their room must be impressively tiny. They send as much money home as possible and, during the rainy season, return home to work the rice fields.

Agriculture barely beats out the garment industry in national income, but working in the country’s two grossest-earning sectors doesn’t seem to be helping the crew from Kandal, whose down time at one job is spent at the other.

“What is better,” we ask, “to work at the farm or to work in the factory?”

In the factories, Mr. Lee explains, “Every month they get the monthly pay. But the farmers? Not every month. For a few months, four months,” he says, they make enough to survive. But after that? “Finish.”

The husband is speaking, but the wife looks tired. They need to rush home, cook dinner, get to sleep, wake up, eat a meager breakfast, bring the daughter to their friends and check in for work in the morning. They have a few more months of this before they go back to the farm, but after that they’ll return to the factory and pick up where they left off.

If they didn’t, you might not have anything to wear.

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