Cambodian garment workers struggle to survive

After a 10-hour shift stitching clothes for western brands, Cambodian factory worker Ry Srey Bopha walks to her tiny shared room, eats leftovers, then sleeps on the floor.

Like many of Cambodia’s 650,000 garment workers, who are overwhelmingly women, Bopha’s days are monotonous and exhausting, and her diet is poor. She rarely sees her five-year-old daughter, who is being raised by an elderly grandparent in the countryside.

“Life in the garment factories is very difficult,” she said. “But I need the money so I just try to be patient.”

Once hailed as a model for sweatshop-free manufacturing, Cambodia’s booming garment sector has seen working conditions deteriorate as the number of factories has swelled.

As money and orders have flooded into the industry in recent years, new factories have emerged “that either don’t know what legal requirements are... or don’t care,” said Jason Judd, a technical specialist with the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia programme.

“They’re not paying attention to legal compliance. They’re focused on making money,” he said.

From a violent strike in January, in which four workers died after police fired live ammunition at protesters, to repeated mass faintings on the factory floor, the once praised sector has had its reputation dented, alarming some top western brands.

But workers say that despite the publicity surrounding the protests and some nominal wage increases since, little has changed.

“Even if we’re sick and cannot work they cut out salaries. We work when we’re ill,” adding that she had recently passed out on the job after inhaling fumes from chemicals used on the clothes.

Bopha works six days a week, starting her shift at 7am and often finishing late at night as she does extra overtime to make ends meet. Many female workers say conditions in the factories are such that they are forced to choose between their family and their job.

“I can’t keep my daughter here as there is no childcare at the factory,” said worker Ton Sam Ol, who has a month-old baby.

Some factories even terminate the labour contracts of pregnant workers, said Moeun Tola of the Community Legal Education Center, a local rights group.

Source of income

For impoverished Cambodia, garments are a key source of cash, bringing in around $5.5 billion in export earnings in 2013. More of that money should be going to workers, union leaders and activists say.

Wages have been increased several times, most recently in February, but still remain below what could be considered a “living wage” activists say.

Factory owners say they cannot afford to increase wages and point that western brands ordering the clothes must take responsibility.

Western brands said during a meeting in May that they were prepared to factor in the price of higher salaries to avoid production line delays due to unrest.

Following the mass strike in January, the minimum wage has been increased to $100 per month. However, workers were demanding $160.

Meanwhile, a new union law, currently being drafted by the government, looks set to limit the ability of workers to organise and protest.

“The freedom of unions will fade away if the draft law is passed,” said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions.AFP

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