The West’s Dirty Laundry
"I saw other workers run and things got chaotic. I was so scared," said Soung Vannak, a 31-year-old garment worker in Phnom Penh. "My house owner locked the gate and did not let us out of our rented room compound.”
The alarming events Vannak experienced took place on January 2 and 3 of this year. Last December, Cambodian garment workers initiated an industry-wide strike against the nation’s garment factories, demanding a wage of $160 per month (the lowest estimate for a living wage in Cambodia) and improved working conditions. The minimum monthly wage was $80. When the government offered $95 per month, then $100, workers continued to refuse to go back to work. Previously peaceful, the situation turned to riots the evening of January 2 and the next morning as Molotov cocktails and rocks were allegedly thrown at police.
“[The landlord] told us that there are some workers shot dead. He told us not to go out of the compound,” explained Vannak. She took part in the strike with the support of the Worker’s Information Center (WIC), a grassroots group that teaches garment workers how to organize for better conditions.
Four garment workers, all men, were shot and killed, one is missing and presumed dead, and more than 30 others were injured. A number of male labor leaders and activists were arrested and taken into custody to a high-security prison in the countryside, far from the capital. A ban on public assembly of ten or more people was put in place.
Women comprise 90 percent of the approximately 600,000-member garment industry workforce in Cambodia. Thida Khus, Director of SILAKA, an organization that supports women’s leadership, explained why men lead unions when the majority of workers are women. Female workers told her “they were not voted in [to lead] by their peers because they were not looked at as strong enough to deal with factory administrators or owners, or with the government officials, and outsiders.”
WIC is not a union but has several drop-in centers near factories where workers can learn about labor law, the free-trade agreement, and how to organize. The organization was conceived from a workers’ empowerment project in 2003 that “aimed to build [factory] workers’ consciousness, organizing [skills], and self-esteem,” explained Sophea Chrek, interterm coordinator and a former garment worker.
“The current leaders demand a higher wage now. This is what [garment workers] need. What they need more is working with factory owners to create a better and safer working environment for them,” explained Khus. Dangerous fumes used to treat fabric, little ventilation in factories, and a poor diet mean many women are weak and unable to bear children despite being of child-bearing age. The International Labor Organization reported that many women cease to menstruate because of a lack of calories. Workers like Vannak must share rooms meant for two with five to ten people, skimping on food in order to send money home to their parents and siblings in the countryside. “They live from hand to mouth and borrow money from month to month since their salary depends on the unpredictable overtime,” added Khus. Working in the garment industry is the default option for most young women due to a lack of education and family debt.
According to South Korean trade unions, which saved the evidence to their Facebook page, the military was called in to break up the strike by investors from South Korea. About 93 percent of Cambodia’s garment industry is foreign-owned by South Korean, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Singapore businessmen, while domestic ownership is just 7 percent.
Factory owners insist they cannot pay higher wages because of their costs. “There is corruption at the highest level in these factories,” said Khus. “They must pay to start the business, and to maintain the business. Therefore, they cannot increase the payment [to workers]. The union is asking for transparency. Show them their balance sheet [proving] that they cannot increase the salary for their workers.”
Labor researcher Dennis Arnold said in an interview from Amsterdam that government “bribes, bureaucracy, and corruption” take a big bite out of factory owners’ revenue. Though found in all countries, he suggests corruption takes a particularly “parasitic” form in Cambodia because of the low domestic investment in the industry. The government’s position seems to be that of taking as much as it can get.
As the government milks its cash cow, wage increases have not kept pace with the cost of living. According to WIC’s research, the free-trade system favors western buyers—such as H&M, the GAP, Wal-Mart, Abercrombie and Fitch, and sports shoe giants Nike and Puma—with low prices, while workers lose out.
A 2012 report by the World Bank, Female Wages in the Apparel Industry Post-MFA: The Cases of Cambodia and Sri Lanka, found that since the Multi-Fiber Agreement (a policy set since 1974 to negotiate quotas between developing and industrialized countries) phased out in 2004, the value of workers’ wages and working conditions have only worsened. After the new trade agreement went into effect in 2005, unit prices for garments sold to the west dropped, though orders increased. As the country struggled to stay competitive with other nations, long-term contracts for workers were replaced with three- and six-month contracts, offering no stability. Cambodia exports 70 percent of its garments to the U.S., which has granted it “most favored” status under the new trade agreement.
Western brands condemned the violence in an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, asking to meet with him the first week of February. But no mention has been made about wages or contracts. For their part, H&M has announced they are teaming up with Sweden-based Civil Rights Defenders to address human rights issues in the industry.
An H&M spokesperson said in an email that they intend to work toward a living wage “by 2018” and use a model factory in Cambodia for “best practice examples” in the garment industry. Reading between the lines of their diplomatically worded statement, it appears that the company wants to find a way around the corruption prevalent in the unions and the factories. “It is important to remember that wages are only one of several factors that influence the sourcing costs and the prices in our stores.” The statement did not address the short-term contacts.
When asked for her thoughts on H&M’s proposed plan, Chrek observed, “I would suggest that the program should focus more on building workers’ knowledge and empowering them to exercise their human rights and able to defend their benefits. They should consider improving the living conditions of workers by providing them more money as producers or laborers.”
On Monday, February 10, a Global Day of Action was staged in front of Cambodian consulates in countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Bangladesh to demand a release of the 23 arrested activists. The next day, Phnom Penh’s Appeals Court denied bail to 21 of the activists who had been arrested. Pranom Somwong, feminist and labor organizer for previous days of action in Bangkok, said, “The Cambodian government has so far been unsympathetic, while the garment manufacturers have taken a confrontational approach to union demands.” The new wage of $100 goes into effect this month, while local labor leaders consider their next moves.