Working conditions in Cambodia. 90% don’t get paid leave.


In the Cambodian economy there is a gorilla in the room – the question of fair pay and fair working conditions. A new survey says that 90% of paid workers don’t even get annual leave.

One thing we’ve always tried to do at Savong School is to act as a fair employer. For sure, nobody is going to get rich on our salaries – but there are other elements of fairness including paid sick leave and annual leave so that our staff continue to get paid regardless of whether it is holidays or whether they fall ill (or are in bereavement for a family member.)

Quite apart from whether these practices are required by law (technically they are in Cambodia, but a report released today suggests that 90% of workers receive neither form of leave) it just seems a mark of simple respect.  For that reason we also provide a token bonus gift each October for the Pchum Ben holidays –  a sign that we support Cambodian tradition, but also that we understand how those in employment are often expected to contribute to others (family, monks) during this period.

The report in the Phnom Penh Post below makes disappointing reading.

This report from the Phnom Penh Post – December 2nd.

Only about 10 per cent of Cambodia’s workforce is being granted paid annual leave, a report released last week says.

Under the 1997 Labour Law, workers who work a standard 48-hour week are entitled to 18 days of paid annual leave, in addition to one day off per week.

But according to the Cambodia Labour Force 2012 report, released on Thursday by the International Labour Organization and the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics, 90 per cent of regular employees are not being given any paid annual leave – a figure that is similar when it comes to paid sick leave.

“According to the responses … only 9.5 per cent of them were allowed any annual paid leave and only 10.4 per cent had provision for paid sick leave,” the report says.

These figures relate only to the 46 per cent of the workforce considered “employees”, rather than those who are self-employed (33 per cent) or contributors to a family business (20 per cent).

Ou Tepphallin, vice-president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation, said the beer promotion sector was one in which only workers at a select few companies were given annual leave.

“Not only do [most] not get annual leave … they have to work seven days per week without getting a holiday,” she said yesterday. “If they want to take time off, their salary will be cut.”

Tepphallin said that some workers did not even know what the Labour Law was and would benefit from more regular government inspections.

Sat Sakmoth, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, and In Khemara, director of the ministry’s inspection department, could not be reached.

Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said that for industries other than the garment sector – which is responsible for more than 85 per cent of Cambodia’s exports – the report’s statistics “are not surprising”.

“Outside of the garment sector, unless you’re working for an international hotel, workers and their [bosses] are probably not aware of it [the Labour Law requirement],” he said. “But it is a violation of the law.”

Within the garment sector, compliance is much greater, Welsh added.

The report surveyed 9,600 households across the country.

“By industry, the largest proportion of the employed population was engaged in agriculture, at 33.3 per cent, followed by 17.5 per cent in wholesale and retail trade and 17.4 in manufacturing,” it says.

See also: How much do workers get paid in Cambodia?

Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the new blood sugar

Coke has pledged to use only ethical sugar – so they’ll be under strict watch in Cambodia where farmers have been unlawfully evicted to make way for large sugar companies.

Land of the Blind


About a year ago we were reminded in a blog by David Pred of IDI, “Before you reach for that Tate and Lyle sugar packet to sweeten your coffee, you might want to think twice.  While most Tate and Lyle sugar packets carry the Fair Trade label, Cambodian farmers who were displaced and dispossessed by their suppliers say that if you are buying this product, you are buying their blood.” Now, you can officially say the same about Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

The blood sugar campaign continued after hundreds of farmers in Cambodia were forcibly evicted to make way for agro-industrial sugar cane plantations, run by key Pepsi and Coke suppliers. Thanks to the ongoing activism of these farmers, supported by Oxfam and other civil society organizations, these corporations were finally called out for the atrocities occurring within their supply chain.

In Cambodia, sugar provides a major industry with exports at…

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A new policy for volunteers – designed to raise the bar


Volunteering – it isn’t about us, it’s about the support we can provide for disadvantaged students in Cambodia

One outcome of my recent meetings with Savong who heads a school and children’s home is the introduction of a minimum donation set for would-be volunteers to his organisation. This is set at $US 100 and is in-line with similar steps taken by similar NGOs in the district.

Volunteers and visitors have long been valued at these NGOs, and as Savong acknowledges – we are the lifeblood, financially, of how these NGOs operate in order to meet the running costs of teaching staff and equipment at the school, not to mention clothes, care, food and education costs of the children at the SOC Home.

But with Cambodia becoming a hotter destination, we’ve seen the rise of the “cheap” tourist who not only visits NGOs unannounced, interrupts proceedings, takes a million photos, but then after 2 hours, drives away without even making a donation – any donation. In other words they using the NGOs to provide a photo-op: they’re not there to make any difference, whatever, to the lives of the children.

As I’m keen to tell friends these days: a lot of what we can bring to these NGOs is about expertise, skills, experience and talent – volunteers bring great teaching skills to the school for example – but money is still vital to the running of these places if they are to keep developing.  And as part of our overall travel budget, what’s $100?

Other NGOs have found that the policy has lifted the overall quality of their volunteers (only the serious apply – the cheapies are put off) and, thankfully, helped with the running costs of the organisations. We hope so. The $100 rule will apply whether the visitor or visiting couple is there for one day, one week or one year. (It is not a daily rate!)

Any thoughts about this?

For more on volunteering click here.

An ethics question for volunteers.


Any volunteer to Cambodia goes in with their eyes wide open, I hope. Our radar is on and we’re monitoring what we see and hear in order to answer two questions.

  1. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I making a positive or a negative impact?
  2. Is the program I’m involved in a good one: is it making good use of its human and capital resources?

As a part time co-ordinator of volunteers to Savong’s project I get to hear feedback from visitors, though never as much as I’d hope. Many volunteers move on and their busy lives consume them. However most feedback is very positive and the number of referrals from one volunteer to others is testimony to how those two questions are being answered.

However I do hear criticisms as well and they are a reminder to me of how every conversation, everything we hear and everything we witness goes into our evidence gathering in order to ask those two questions. I pass on criticisms to Savong in order that any issues might be dealt with.

When criticism is negative and somebody’s had a less than stellar experience the feedback also comes framed with other criticisms. For example once a volunteer told me: “did you see Savong’s watch? Is this where the donations go?”  (Yes, I’ve seen the watch – a mid-priced Olympic – because I bought it for him as a gift of friendship. He calls it an “old man’s watch.” Another kind group bought him a practical G-Shock watch,) Others have said: “Have you seen what he drives? It’s a Lexus 4WD – is this where the donations go?”

The green Nissan Tundra semi-pick-up. Sometimes he drives his father’s second-hand Lexus. In Cambodia the nation is crawling with highly paid officials and NGO heads driving around in shiny new Lexus vehicles. I suspect that these were donated by Japan en-masse, as part of an aid program that also sorted out Toyota’s vehicle surplus. I might be wrong. But they’ve become a symbol of misdirected funds. Administrators who drive up to a village, measure the poverty and then drive away in air-conditioned comfort. You can imagine.

But when I asked Savong about the vehicle he was quite curt with me.  He asked me if I felt he needed a vehicle to do his job which involves daily commutes 14kms each way between Siem Reap and the school. “Yes,” I replied.

“So why do you mind that I drive a Nissan.”

“I guess it’s the look,” I said. “It looks like the school money goes towards your vehicle.”

“The money came from my work as a tour guide. It came from the business I run to earn an income. So why do people judge me? Do they want me to drive an even older car? Would they be happier if I walked?”

I think he has a point. Westerners are happy to volunteer, but we seem much happier – much less judgmental – if what we witness is poverty. Poor students without pens even, and without paper.  Barefoot teachers who do the best with what little they have.

Yet the moment we build-up the resources, and equip the local people (which is surely what we’re trying to do) we become much more judgmental. Schools, have come a long way from being without stationery. They have computers, and broadband. Savong’s School was given, very generously, a video projector.  So these thing… or the watch?  We don’t mind progress but THIS much progress?? We’d be happier, it seems, if the school was poorer, or the watch was a nasty throw-away: one that – to be honest – we’d not want to wear ourselves.

I think we tread a fine line when we ask ourselves whether programs are making good and fair use of human resources and capital in order to do the job they’re designed to do.  The question is a perfectly fair one, and it needs constant asking.  But we have to be careful that we apply consistent yardsticks when we assess the evidence. If a program director needs a car, then for goodness sakes, equip him or her with a car that goes. A second-hand 4WD shouldn’t get us steamed up. (A stretch Hummer, well that would be another question.) We shouldn’t wish for two standards: a standard we apply to programs in our own countries, versus a “lower” standard in Cambodia.  And we shouldn’t assume that what we see – the watches or vehicles – come out the mouths of the hungry. In this case they haven’t. We need to be vigilant, for sure, but not too quick to judge.

More on volunteering.

Thoughts on heading back to Cambodia


To visit Cambodia is to confront the deepest of life’s questions

I wrote this in September 2013.

This October I head back to Siem Reap some 28 months after I last visited, and 9 years since I first visited. I head back with mixed feelings this time because if anything the journey will be accompanied with more emotional baggage and greater responsibility.

When I first landed in Siem Reap one hot sunny afternoon in 2004 I was immediately uplifted by a sense of freedom and the exhilaration of being somewhere totally new for me: the beginning of an adventure.  Over the years that feeling has diminished as the project I’ve been involved with has grown in scope and become more complex for the same reason. The first impression most visitors get in Cambodia is that of the delightful smiles of the locals – but these days I ponder more often the complicated layers (cultural, interpersonal) in dealing with Cambodia.  Deep down I try to keep a perspective on my own motivations and my own ability to make a positive difference.

The truth is, the project sometimes breaks my spirit, as it did in 2011, when I saw Savong’s school and childrens home both in good heart, but in need of systems: in need of stronger day to day management. The organisation had grown to the point where the existing systems were not keeping up. How I wanted to implement this and suggest that, but in my two week sojourn I met resistance and I was deeply hurt that Savong seemed to be fobbing off these discussions. Tomorrow brother, tomorrow.  And tomorrow finally arrived, just 12 hours before my flight out.

In hindsight I didn’t handle the situation particularly well. It didn’t help that I was very ill and at one stage slept for something like 30 hours straight.

When we finally made the time to have the business discussion I realised that my approach – my didactic style of “you have to do this! you need to do that!” was a serious affront to Savong who is, after all, the Director of the project. I’m well aware of cultural differences and how they affect management styles, so I’d walked into a trap of my own making, alas.

Since then we have both discussed our communication styles and we have also restated, as we do in most conversations, our commitment to the children of Bakong, just east of Siem Reap: the children at the school and the children’s home.

Even so I look forward to our next meetings about as eagerly as a new recruit looks forward to their first-ever 6-monthly review.  The agenda this time includes those things I wanted to raise 2 years ago: the systems and procedures that the NGO requires to keep all stakeholders happy.  In fact Savong has raised these items and these days he’s making concerted efforts to constantly improve the project. For me the meetings will involve a little bit of letting-go because the project is now too large for me to keep underwriting – making up any shortfall we might have in fundraising. Some months the gap is too big for me to manage alone. So we have some serious thinking and planning to undertake together, especially now I’m approaching retirement age.

So that’s my baggage and my burden. What I look forward to, quite apart from seeing my friend – my brother – Savong once more, is the prospect of meeting the school students once again, and the children at the SOC. Whenever I’m feeling down, my thoughts turn to them and I realise that, excepting for my wife Susanna, these children give me the heart, the courage and the life-meaning I need to get by.

In some ways that’s why I feel trepidation about this particular journey next month. Once more I’m coming face to face with my own doubts and depressions. Once more I’m confronting the question we all consider: who am I?

Since writing this I’ve been on the trip and found my fears unwarranted. Here’s a first reaction on that journey.

Cambodian Elections – a slow change has begun


What will Cambodia be like when this girl reaches voting age?

Today as I write this voting booths have been closed for 30 minutes in Cambodia and counting will begin soon for Cambodia’s general elections.

Cambodia’s ruling Prime Minister Han Sen trumpets democracy, but repeatedly in elections there are so many irregularities and enigmatic situations that it would be a brave commentator who could honestly admit that the election results cannot be questioned.

In the latest election the main leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy was not actually allowed on the ballot. It was said that he hadn’t done his paperwork on time, but the man has lived in virtual exile.

Even so, when Rainsy returned to campaign for his party last week, he was treated to a heroes welcome by more than 100,000 people who demonstrated in his support in Phnom Penh, and more than 50,000 who did likewise in Siem Reap. This is unprecedented.

The naked opposition to the main party must also come as galling to the Prime Minister who likes to lay claim that he is a popular leader. The nation news agencies and television channels were not allowed to cover the arrival of Sam Rainsy – yet the crowds gathered anyway.

The difference in this election is the surge of young voters, and their widespread intolerance of the corruption they witness in today’s Cambodia.  Perhaps many of them have nothing to lose – being young – but regualrly on Facebook stories of corruption (farmers losing their land to wealthy palm oil producers – friends of the Han Sen Government no less) circulate freely. Everybody knows the score in the internet age.

I don’t expect the opposition parties will win even more than a third of the 125 seats in Parliament – there are too many irregularities and too much gerrymandering of seats to expect much else – but even so, this election marks a watershed.

It marks a moment when not just radical commentators, but everyday Cambodians have put the Government on notice.

If Hun Sen is alert to the will of his people, then he will start coming down hard on corruption, he will start demanding transparency from his Government departments, and start championing the rights of the downtrodden.

If he is at all wise, he will dial back his red-carpet treatment to investors who demand an easy ride (shoe factories that employ workers  in unsafe conditions, horticultural behemoths that bulldoze villages) and start demanding greater fairness in a nation whose little wealth has ended up in the hands of the few.

This election, a third of voters are under 30, and it is common knowledge that they are the generation unimpressed by the domineering Hun Sen style of Government.

Next election this cohort will generate closer to 40% of the vote.

Why do I write about this subject today? Because the work we do with the poor rural people we deal with is not just about rice on the table, and receiving an education. It is about giving people hope for their future. Foreign supported NGOs can’t provide hope: only the Cambodian people – and their elected Government can provide that.

Coverage of the election: click here. The Government was severely punished but held on.

But a November 2013 report into the elections leave big questions about the outcome. Here.