Deirdre O’Shaughnessy has been wondering for a long time just who makes her clothes. She went to Cambodia to find out.
As we approached the factory, a steady stream of young women, and some men, flowed out from a side door. Colourfully dressed, a few wearing hijabs, the workers made their way out the front gate, some to a makeshift market that has sprung up to serve the factory, most to a field across the road, where they sat, under shade, eating the lunches they brought to work.
“We provide them with a canteen,” the HR lady said, rather defensively, waving an arm towards an enormous concrete structure with a corrugated plastic roof and rows of metal benches “but they prefer to eat over there.”
It was my first sight of the Man Ou factory in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where 2,500 workers spend their days making men’s suits, for Next and other retailers. Run by Kevin Liu, a Chinese man whose family owns the company, Man Ou chose Cambodia for cost reasons and because of political stability. Liu also notes that, “85% of Cambodians are Buddhist, I think this means people will be very good and very patient.”
This factory is one of the Cambodian Labour Federation’s shining examples of what can be done when factories engage with garment workers’ unions. Conditions are reasonable – on a walk-through, I saw a bright, airy building with plenty of ventilation, music playing, drinking water and safety signage. It doesn’t look like interesting work – it’s boring, finicky, and people work very long days – but it’s certainly not the sweatshop I was expecting.
Union leader Sun Lyhov, who met us with the factory’s owner, explained that Man Ou is one of few factories where missing a day’s work loses you just one day’s pay – in many other garment factories, workers are fined $30, almost a week’s wages, for missing just one day. It’s one of an increasing number that’s part of the Better Factories programme, which involves inspections by the International Labour Organisation and includes retailers like H&M and Primark.
Shop steward Piseth, is 30 and has four children. He works in the factory’s warehouse 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 said, 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 me she loves working in the factory. “Before, I worked 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.
Other workers I met had similar sentiments – it’s better than the alternative, but they wouldn’t want it for their own kids.
Minimum wage for garment workers recently went up from $120 to $140, although workers had sought $177. By contrast, bar work in Siem Reap will earn you about $80 per month, farm work about the same.
In 2013, the Clean Clothes Campaign estimated that up to 650,000 Cambodians worked in the garment industry, with clothing exports valued at $4.97bn. Conditions are not this good in every factory.
As late as August 2015, 400 workers fainted in different factories across Cambodia, due to poor ventilation, malnutrition and exhaustion. Job loss is almost inevitable upon pregnancy or illness. There has been trouble with dangerous, overloaded company-provided trucks crashing, injuring and killing workers on their way to and from factories. So workers at Man Ou must organise and pay for their own transport, which could cost up to a quarter of their wage packet.
Retail brands available in Ireland that source goods in Cambodia include Next, Primark / Penneys, H&M, New Look, Gap, Levi, Puma, M&S, Clarks and Tesco.
Probably Ireland’s most successful fashion brand, Penneys / Primark is the brand most associated with low cost clothing in Ireland, and with that association comes fears of worker exploitation. According to a spokesperson, the company does source garments in Cambodia, but over the past few years – and particularly since the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh – Primark has made huge strides in cleaning up its supply chain.
It’s a member of the International Labour Organisation’s Better Work programme, and along with H&M, Inditex (Zara) and Next, is involved with ACT, an initiative between international brands and retailers, manufacturers and trade unions to address the issue of living wages in the textile and garment supply chain.
“We work hard to ensure our products are made in good working conditions, and that the people making them are treated decently and paid a fair wage. We require all our suppliers’ factories to work to demanding standards, as set out in the Primark Code of Conduct, which we require all our suppliers to comply with as a condition of doing business with us. It meets international standards and sets out the core principles regarding working conditions, including working hours, fair wages, and workers’ rights,” Primark said in a statement.
Another favourite with Cork shoppers, H&M has also worked hard to improve its supply chain. According to Gustav Lovén, the company’s Social Sustainability Manager, it was one of the first to publish a full list of suppliers on its website, ensuring customers know exactly where garments are sourced (although this is very difficult to locate). H&M monitors factories and conducts training with workers on how to air grievances, as well as encouraging them to unionise.
“We want all suppliers producing for H&M to pay their employees a fair living wage – a wage that satisfies the basic needs of the workers and his/her family and provides some discretionary income – and our fair living wage strategy is an important contribution to this,” explains Lovén.
It’s worth noting that H&M and Primark are considered leaders in the area of sustainable and ethical sourcing of products; the picture painted above is not a typical one.
My visit to the Man Ou factory was not what I expected, and having learned how two of my favourite stores source their garments, the result is not as bleak as I anticipated. Yes, improvements can always be made. But researching your choices is always worth it – knowledge is power.
This piece was originally published in the Evening Echo on Wednesday 17 February 2016. This research was supported by the Simon Cumber Media Fund.