We’d arranged to meet union leader Sun Lyhov at 11am, the workers’ breaktime. A working day in a garment factory is from 7-11 and 12.30 – 5, and as we arrived a steady stream of young men and women poured out of the factory. They passed the crude market that has sprung up outside the factory’s gate and settled, on blankets, in a field behind it, under the trees’ shade, eating noodles and chopped fruit from plastic bags.
Suspicion from inside led the office manager and HR manager outside, where after demanding our IDs and asking us to join them inside (presumably while they checked with the boss that we were expected), they let us get on with meeting workers. However, with them standing right behind us and in earshot for all four interviews, it’s unlikely anyone we spoke to felt free to give their real view.
We met the shop steward Piseth, who is aged around 30 with four children. He works in the factory’s warehouse, he told me, because he failed his grade 12 exam in school. Most of his family members are teachers and he hopes his children will have better luck in school than he did. His wife, Kong Tha, is a machinist in the factory. Both earn $170 per month.
“I work in good conditions, and the process is also good,” he told us through a translator. “I don’t want my children to work in a factory, because it’s not a permanent job, It’s better than others – if I work overtime I make more money, and the union has a plan to improve pay for workers.”
Kong Tha told us she loves working in the factory.
“Before, I work in another factory, and this is nearer to home. The salary is acceptable but hard to manage”. She works two hours overtime (bringing her to ten hours daily) whenever it’s available; she hopes their children will be teachers, and bankers.
Minimum wage for garment workers recently went up from $120 to $140. By contrast, bar work in Siem Reap will earn you about $80 per month, farm work about the same.
There has been trouble in some areas, with dangerous, overloaded company-provided trucks that ferry workers to their factories crashing. So these workers must organise and pay for their own transport, which could cost up to a quarter of their wage packet, as the factory is some distance outside the city, while other workers come from villages further again.
I spoke also to Loan Houk, who’s 30 and began working at Man Ou just this month. Her sister who’s 23 has worked here for two years.
Previously, Loan Houk worked at another factory making lighters. She says the sewing isn’t hard, but she’s not sure yet which she prefers. She wants her two children, aged nine and four, to go to university “so they can do what they want”.
The union’s representative Sun Lyhov explains that this factory is better than many others, because when workers miss a day without permission (this could mean a family emergency, a funeral, etc ), they are only docked $3.84, or that day’s pay. In other factories – he mentions New Star, which makes shoes including Geox, they are docked $30, almost a week’s pay. If they are off for three days,they will lose their job. All the factories terminate staff without pay if somebody is sick, and if they are pregnant, it’s very difficult to get permission for any time off; in practice, a pregnant woman will almost always lose her job.
Inside the factory, the Chinese owner Kevin Liu explains to us that his company chose Cambodia for cost reasons, because the government is stable, and because people are polite – China is now too expensive, Vietnam too unstable, and “for the business, it’s not so good when people have their own ideas”.
He mentions, too, that Buddhist workers are preferable. Most of the workers are Buddhist, with a surprising number of Muslims also – many of the food stalls outside the gate are specifically halal.
“85% of Cambodians are Buddhist, I think this means people will be very good and very patient.”
What he doesn’t mention is the tax breaks from the Cambodian government, which we are told by other sources are roundly abused, with factories moving or changing name every few years to continue avoiding tax.
“This is the first factory the union came into,” he explains, “We must tell around the world what’s happening here, and what will be happening here. Of course, some things are not as good, but it will be getting better.”
“Cambodia is a developing country. Sure, some factories are using children, but the International Labour Organisation is checking all the factories. You have to sign a contract with the ILO when building a factory to get it inspected. I don’t think customers should worry about Cambodia. If everyone writes negative things about factories, they will go, and then you will have 800,000 Cambodians with no job.”
“We can see the change in Cambodia every day – the roads are better, there are more cars, more buildings, new houses, now workers have their own motorbikes – I have to build more parking spaces for them. Life is getting better.”
As Kevin is telling me this, union representative Lyhov interjects, “most journalists, they only want to see the bad”.
He’s probably right.
Capitalism is a fickle friend, but at the moment Cambodia is progressing. There is enormous poverty and hardship, but there are also opportunities – and every one of the parents I have met wants to harness those opportunities, and make sure their children’s lives are easier than theirs.
Kevin’s pragmatic attitude to cost and location is the worrying note for the future. His honesty is a culture shock, when you’ve grown up on a diet of IDA jobs announcements and promises that Dell or Apple or whichever multinational is flavour of the month, will never leave Ireland. Although the stakes are higher here for workers, with no safety net and little infrastrucutre, the parallels between one small country and another and our reliance on multinationals, are jarring.
It’s crucial that the parents who tell me they want their children to be educated can make that happen while the factory jobs last. Because once Cambodia’s middle class emerges in earnest, those factories will be gone, like ships in the night, to the next cheap location.