Surviving as a garment worker

Like a true professional, Maen Sopeak sings to the audience of seven people who sit on the bare floor of her room in a Phnom Penh suburb. Her singing is soft, at moments almost a whisper, but her beautiful voice is clear. In a country even slightly richer than devastated, impoverished Cambodia, she could be a star. She could perform to packed halls, wearing only the best clothes.

Maen Sopeak, a garment worker who shares a single room with six other girls smile during a lunch break in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

Maen Sopeak is, however, just a poor garment worker. There will be no sell-out crowds or fancy dresses for her anytime soon. She shares a single, hole-in-the-wall room with six other women, who all work at a nearby garment factory producing clothes for Western brands.

The song is excruciatingly sad. It tells the story of a girl forced into marriage with an older man, not the one she loves. Maen makes the grim song sound somehow joyful, although suicidal thoughts would be more appropriate. The abject conditions where she lives and works are a natural setting for this tragic ballad. Here, misery invites yet more misery. Just like in my home country of Bosnia, another devastated post-genocide country where its sevdah music is just a natural extension of everyday hardship.

Garment workers sit on the floor of their apartment during a lunch break in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

I’m in Cambodia for five days to do a story on garment workers. The idea is to see how these women live, and shine some light on these conditions before a tragedy strikes (which I hope will never happen). Working conditions are better than in Bangladesh, but not by much. After a building collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,000 workers in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry, more business has come to Cambodia. Many fear more accidents will follow.

I knew coming here was not going to be easy. No matter how long I stay, or how good or lucky I am, many layers of this complex story will remain unseen. What I have seen and photographed is not easy to put into one picture or into a single thought.

A woman holds her child under cheap dresses offered for sale at a market just outside one of industrial zones in the suburbs of Phnom Penh where many of garment factories are situated

Cambodia’s garment industry is huge and getting bigger. More than 300,000 workers produce the clothing, mostly for exports. There is a high chance you have worn clothing from Gap or H&M that has been stitched together here. Demand and investments are surging. So, too, is labor unrest. That’s no surprise. Although salaries and conditions for workers in Cambodia are not as bad as in Bangladesh (the monthly minimum wage of $80 compared to only $38 in Bangladesh; in China it is $150) protests and strikes quadrupled over the last year. There have already been 48 strikes this year, more than in the whole of 2010 and 2011 combined.

In the village of Trapeng Weng, just outside Phnom Penh, more than 400 people work in a factory that makes products for Nike. “Police come every day to look for me, sometimes in uniform, sometimes as civilians,” says a man who claims to be on the black list for his role in recent and violent protests. The pay is not enough, he said, explaining the reason for the unrest. The government raised the minimum wage to $80 a month in March this year but workers complain that it is not enough and wage rises have not kept up with the cost of living.

Som Cheantha, a eight month pregnant garment worker cries and holds a sign during a gathering of workers at their union headquarters in Phnom Penh

To survive with some money left at the end of the month to send home, workers must live a very basic life. For those who come from the provinces, the accommodation is shocking: overcrowded buildings, four or even more people usually sharing “an apartment” as big as a changing room in clothing store. They each pay rent of about $10 a month, plus more for water and for a single neon light installed on bare walls. Another $10 or more goes toward transportation expenses. Food is getting more expensive.

To make ends meet a worker has to be very lucky not to get sick or overspend on anything outside the bare basics.

The problems start when something goes wrong, such as a family member dying, or a debt collector turning up. Then they borrow, creating a vicious cycle of debt and poverty that has ruined so many families, communities and countries worldwide.

Eng Chen, a 23 year old garment worker waits to receive an intravenous therapy at an one-bed private clinic in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

Not all survive such a hard life. In the stench of a city’s slum, in a room in which every other wooden floor plank is missing, where the tin roof turns into a microwave oven, a girl nicknamed D explains why she quit garment work and joined what is colloquially called the “entertainment industry”, basically prostitution. “My mother died and it all went downhill from there. I needed quick money and could not wait for the next month’s salary. When I work in the park, it is more dangerous but I get money the same day.”

For many others, work in the textile industry is as good as it gets and better than anything else they know. Chhem Sokhorn, 37, is getting ready for work in the family’s rice field. We briefly speak about her life before the morning turns into unbearable heat and the ever-smiling woman makes a point: she used to work in the garment industry but quit to be the only one from her family to take care of her household. Her daughter is at the factory and she hopes her other children will get jobs there, too. Yes, the garment industry pays little; the hours are long and the work is hard but that is much better than tilling a rice paddy a few months a year.

With no education and no money to invest in something more profitable, the garment industry seems to be the only option. Outside an industrial zone where factories are based, young, unemployed women gather at the gates hoping for part-time work. Day or night shifts, they don’t seem to care. Their families expect them to start contributing an income.

Garment workers walk in heavy rain after working at their factories at a industrial zone in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

The real problems will come later. The young and healthy can work a lot without asking too many questions.

They might dream about being a singer or an architect (like Man Chan Thea, the boy I photographed in a rice field who hates garment work because his sister is always so tired and sick from it).

But the reality is brutal and the society conservative. Investing in education or a career will not feed the family or pay existing debts. For many people I met outside walls of the factories, it is about sheer survival, nothing else.

The head of a mannequin is left in the window of a beauty saloon in area where garment factories are based in one of Phnom Penh's suburbs

You can see more of my pictures for this story here.

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