Garment workers in Cambodia cost a small fraction of what you pay for your t-shirt or shoes.

discrimination-workers-cambodia-retailersIn October 2015 Cambodia lifted the official minimum wage of a garment worker to $US140 per month. The big unions had initially demanded $177 per month in view of the high cost of living in Phnom Penh, home to most garment factories.

The decision followed a vote among representatives of the government, factories and unions, in which the majority supported a raise from the current $128 to $135, which the government then increased to $140.

Not that the Government has a history of being generous. In early 2014, at least four people were killed and more than 20 were injured when police outside Cambodia’s capital opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers.

The clothing and footwear industry, 90% of staff of whom are women, is Cambodia’s biggest export earner, employing about 700,000 people in more than 700 garment and shoe factories. In 2014, the Southeast Asian country shipped more than $6 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.

The average workweek of a garment factory worker is almost 60 hours, and conditions are often very poor by western standards. Check out this link to a report (Work faster or get out!) prepared by Human Rights Watch.

Their report was well researched: and is based on interviews with more than 340 people, including 270 workers from 73 factories in Phnom Penh and nearby provinces, union leaders, government representatives, labor rights advocates, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, and international apparel brand representatives.

Of some 200 apparel brands that source from Cambodia, Human Rights Watch was in contact with Adidas, Armani, Gap, H&M, Joe Fresh, and Marks and Spencer.

Some of these brands are getting their act together to prevent exploitation and abuses of the garment workers (do over time or get fired, sexual harassment, child labour etc)  but certainly not all.  Next time you buy Made in Cambodia (which should be a good thing) check the policies of the brands you’re supporting.  On a thirty dollar item, the labour component is probably no more than $1.50.

44 years since the Kent State Massacre – how many more?

Image

John Filo’s photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard. The protest was over the bombing of Cambodia.

By 1970 public sentiment in the USA toward their war in Vietnam had turned almost decisively. In late 1969 the spotlight had fallen on the My Lai massacre in which a village of innocent people were murdered by out-of-control US soldiers. There was no moral defense for this. The war was increasingly unjustifiable – except to the so-called political Hawks who saw Vietnam as the place where the communist dominoes would be stopped from falling (into Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia.)  Now on April 30th 1970 President Richard Nixon announced to America that, in fact, he was extending military action into Cambodia.

In fact the US had already been actively bombing the eastern parts of Cambodia, adjacent to Vietnam. This was Nixon’s “secret war” urged on by Henry Kissinger (three years later recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.)

The announcement on April 30th spurred a planned demonstration by peace protestors across dozen of university campuses including Kent State University in Ohio. Here on May 4th 1970 the protestors were met by the National Guard who, under specific orders, aimed and fired their rifles at incredulous protestors. (Witnesses thought surely they were using blanks.)

Four students were killed.

The photo (above) was taken by a passer-by and widely published. Of all media images this is the one that took the horror of the Indo-China conflict right onto America’s own doorstep. Days later, fuelled by singer Neil Young’s anger over the event, Crosby Stills Nash & Young released the single Ohio which to me, even 44 years later distils the feelings I have toward wars in general.

Alas, the photo has echoes today, not in the USA so much as in the Freedom Park of Phnom Penh where Hun Sen’s soldiers have killed protestors seeking fair elections and living wages. A common element when I look at the photos of both events is that the soldiers are masked. The Ohio National Guard soldiers were wearing gas masks – their use of teargas was not successful because the breeze dispersed this – while the Cambodian riot police wear motorbike helmets.

I wonder if this is for physical protection or whether it reflects the shamefulness of meeting a peaceful protest with unnecessary brute force.

GARMENT WORKER

Source VoA News. A garment worker protesting low wages meets police force in Phnom Penh.

Book Review – Destination Cambodia

Image

Author Walter Mason avoids dwelling on the well-trodden graveyards of Cambodia’s recent history, and instead shares with readers the palpable feeling of what its like to live in bustling, chaotic and sometimes frustrating Phnom Penh.

Australian writer Walter Mason loves Asia, is an astute scholar of Buddhist culture and makes for an entertaining dinner partner in his book Destination Cambodia: regaling readers with funny experiences but also insights into Cambodian attitudes and social conventions. He is astute, for example picking up on the Cambodian tendency to view achievements in a Cambo-centric way (quick to point out that Muay Thai was really invented in Cambodia,) in the same way that my country, New Zealand, seems anxious to lead the world at this or that. Call it ‘small country syndrome.’

Walter is part romantic and part cynic; happy to follow his generous heart, but sometimes quite biting with his comments, especially when he meets rip-off artists, or when – as most westerners do – he gets utterly frustrated by everything happening in “Cambodia time” where nothing seems punctual and where plans can easily be derailed.

He is self-deprecating as a narrator – and two gags run through the easily-read 266 pages. One is his “gay-ness” which some locals don’t recognise (single – he’d make some woman a good catch,) and the other is his size: considered plump and therefore blessed by good fortune. Cambodians are pretty blunt, not in an unkind way, about such things. As I find in my travels – I’ve more than once been patted on my belly and asked: “expecting baby?”

Still, like good travel writers, the author learns to reflect on his frustrations and admits that he has been infected by pragmatic earthiness of Khmer people as well as by the “casual wonder” of Cambodian thinking where spiritual beliefs, for example the presence of ghosts, are taken at unquestioning face value.

The book is at its best when Mason stands back and reflects on the state of Cambodia and its people: it synthesizes the author’s observations and his well-read understanding of the history and culture. I could have done with a bit more of this. The decision to write this books as a series of scarcely related incidents and adventures makes for an entertaining read, but at the expense of developing the richer thematic arc.

That’s a minor quibble. The book provides the would-be traveller to Cambodia a feel for modern life. When I first travelled to the Kingdom the only books were those that dwelt on the Pol Pot years. As Walter Mason says, Cambodia grapples with two pasts: the glory of Angkor and the tragedy of Pol Pot. “The Cambodian people are balancing the memories of the two.”

For two more book reviews:

  1. Cambodia’s Curse
  2. A History of Cambodia

A new landscape for Cambodian NGOs

Image

Twilight on an old, less controlled NGO environment. Today there are new arrangements with Government Ministries designed to boost accountability.

When Savong first established his school in 2005 and childrens home in 2008 there were few restrictions or regulations. Back, ten years ago, anybody could set up an NGO, and for every ten good organisations that established themselves, with clear objectives and sound service delivery, there was perhaps one “cowboy” operation – some say more – that was established either as a money making venture (orphan tourism for example,) or with good intentions but seriously weak delivery.  From a humanitarian agency point of view it was the wild west.

Well, the sun is setting on those days. Today Savong is in Phnom Penh on a business journey to see the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) to process paperwork that both ministries are demanding of NGOs: the Memorandum of Understanding which forms, in simple terms, a contract between the NGO and (via the Government) the people of Cambodia. The MoUs spell out:

  • The objectives and purpose of the organisation
  • The resources and deliverables of that organisation
  • The organisation structure – a clear list of who is accountable
  • Three years’ worth of budgets
  • Evidence that the NGO is well supported and will continue to be supported.

What does the Government provide in exchange? Not resources exactly (they charge a fee to submit a MoU) but they do provide support for registered NGOs, and they also provide for foreign supporters a degree of genuine legitimacy. Our NGO has already been audited successfully as part of the process and the audit was an opportunity to share best practices.

Nobody loves paperwork, do they? But in this case Savong is genuinely excited by these dealing with Government. I suspect this is due to a sense of inclusivity that is being fostered by the Ministries who, by weaving independent NGOs into the social welfare fabric (and by shutting down the cowboys), are starting to put Cambodia on the track of having a more cohesive social policy. Cambodia benefits when the Government starts dealing with the front-line agencies.

H&M pledges fair living wage to suppliers

Fashion label with a conscience. A slow reaction to Cambodian and Bangladesh worker safety? While fashion labels announce new minimum wages on November 23rd Cambodia’s garment workers made a claim for $150 per month to be the new minimum: a lot higher than H&M or Walmart have been discussing.

ihqtest

Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 18.31.31

High street fashion chain H&M has announced that it plans to pay a fair living wage to all of its suppliers.Helena Helmersson, the brand’s head of sustainability, unveiled the company’s ‘road map’ at the European Conference on Living Wages this week. The new scheme focuses on wage development at the factories of its suppliers by demanding that all those who work to make H&M products have their wages negotiated and annually reviewed, involving democratically elected trade unions or worker representatives.

READ: H&M’s plans to spotlight sustainability

Although H&M is to be applauded for the scheme, it is going to be a slow process. In September 2011 the brand joined the Fair Wage Network initiative which assessed more than 200 of their key suppliers’ factories (they currently source from 1,800 factories). By 2014 they will 850,000 workers across three ‘model’ factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh under the fair wage scheme and…

View original post 56 more words

Cambodian Zombies – they’re here!

Image

Cambodia had a thriving film industry in the decades before Pol Pot, but today the low entry price of digital is enabling the Khmer film industry to find it’s feet…and other missing limbs. Run is the first ever Khmer Zombie flick.

The nascent Cambodian movie industry is finding its feet at present – as well as a few other stray limbs and severed heads. This last month a new local movie has been launched successfully: a zombie flick that cost $10,000 to shoot. The name of the movie is “Run.”

Come view the trailer. (CLICK HERE)

While Cambodia has a strong history of ghost movies and supernatural tales, this film represents a 21st Century departure for the once thriving film industry – borrowing heavily from the western Zombie tropes, but putting a Khmer spin on the storyline. The Cinematography is by a western cameraman, but the movie is distinctly a product of Phnom Penh. Watching the trailer I couldn’t help but think that the zombie virus is a metaphor for many other things (corruption, western values, civil unrest) just as surely as those American-made 1950s Monster from Outer Space films were a metaphor for the lingering Communist menace of the time.

The movie features an ex-champion Khmer boxer, and at least one zombie victim who – in reality – lost limbs in landmine accidents. A black reminder of other forces that once invaded the Kingdom of Cambodia.

See more about Cambodian Movies.