With over 600 factories for western clothing and accessory brands in Cambodia you’d think there was something in the water attracting the foreign companies. In reality, it’s cheap labor, a lack of laws or lax enforcement of laws and the allure of being able to abuse workers in order to improve their bottom line. Cambodia is handcuffed to this industry – they are being abused as a whole by the garment industry, but are completely dependent on the money that is flooded into the country by these companies. It’s become a vicious cycle with reprehensible long term consequences.
Workers in garment factories in Cambodia are subject to some of the worst abuse in the developing world – poor wages that have not kept up with inflation or the cost of living, short term contracts that carry the constant threat of unemployment, management enforcement of illegal hours, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, lack of healthcare access and refusal of sick leave and the inability to collectively organize has made the lives of approximately 700,000 (mostly women) a devastating circle of human rights violations.
Minimum wage in Cambodia is currently approximately $153 USD/month. While this is a recent increase, it has not kept pace with the rising cost of living in Cambodia. Food prices, rent and education costs have risen sharply in the last several years. Furthermore, new mandatory healthcare contributions that might ultimately save workers money on medical costs in the long run has reduced their monthly purchasing power. Compounding the poor wages are unreasonable demands on workers – production minimums that are impossible to meet in a day for example, or the threat of forcing unpaid overtime or their short term contract won’t be renewed.
Literal sweatshops are a sad reality in Cambodia. Already in a tropical climate, poorly designed and ventilated buildings mean that temperatures can hover just under 40C (104F) and machines often fill work floors with toxic smokes and chemicals. Recent fainting spells of workers have been highlighted by international media outlets, but with the lax labor laws in Cambodia little is being done to change the situations. Companies often blame poor nutritional education on the fainting spells and offer energy bars or weak powered fans as a bandaid on the problem. Last March 150 workers passed out from smoke inhalation at a western sportswear company factory. In November over a three day period 360 workers at various factories collapsed from the heat. There were no discernible repercussions for the companies in question.
Workers are also refused the right to collectively organize in Cambodia. While technically legal to form unions, factories are trained to either immediately fire people upon hearing of the possibility of a union or to all together ignore their demands. Union leaders are often bribed by factory workers or threatened into submission. Women are routinely fired for becoming pregnant, and sick leave is often refused for legitimate reasons even accompanied by a doctor’s note.
Corruption runs rampant in the country, and the government either cannot or will not do anything to enforce the changes that workers in Cambodia desperately need. With over $6 billion USD of exports leaving Cambodia from these garment factories the country is chained to the industry, fearing that any push back will move the factories to countries who will not enforce global human rights standards. On an individual basis, workers fear the loss of even $153/month and are subjects to modern day slavery to provide even less than the minimum for their families.
As consumers what can be done? Demand transparency from fashion companies and refuse to support companies that do not stand for ethical and dignified conditions and payment for their workers.