By Katherine Q. Stone
In May of last year, an article in The Guardian stated that the Cambodian government would meet with representatives of garment factory workers, International Workers’ Rights Union IndustriALL, and the employees themselves to listen to their concerns and demands for better conditions and fair wages. The perceived promise of reform came on the heels of January-February 2014 worker strikes and protests in response to threats, corruption, blatantly illegal action, and innumerable human rights violations against the some 400,000 Cambodian garment workers, 90% of which are women. The Cambodian police force violently opposed the peaceful protests, which had modest claims such as doubling the monthly wage to $160.
Protestors also wished to bring attention to the fact that 43.2% of garment workers are malnourished and anemic, while 15.7% of workers are underweight. This, combined with the sweltering and cramped conditions inside the factories, has led to as many as 1,000 faintings in 2014, 802 in 2013, and 2,107 in 2012. That’s not even taking into account the fatalities, which an article in RFA (Radio Free Asia) stated trade unions attribute to, “…chemical fumes from textiles and other materials, factory use of pesticides during working hours, lack of ventilation, poor sanitary conditions and, in some cases, forcing workers to labor for extended periods of overtime.” In other words, workers had every right to take to the streets and demand their own safety, a living wage, and an end to the inhumane conditions and lives of Cambodian garment factory workers. The government, however, saw things differently.
As stated in an article by Michelle Tolson for RH Reality Check, five early 2014 protesters were killed by police, thirty were injured, many union leaders have been sued, 23 of them arrested, countless protestors have been fired, and finally, public assembly was banned altogether.
So, did the “summit” of big brands and fast fashion change things? Not so much. While 25 of those arrested were freed due to international scrutiny, they were still forced to pay fines of around $2,000 – a nearly unfathomable sum. And, judging from firsthand accounts, investigations, and this powerful video of three Norwegian fashion bloggers working in the factories for a month; absolutely no changes have been made to ameliorate the conditions of the factories.
In March of 2015, Human Rights Watch released at 140-page report detailing the abuses and intimidation of Cambodian Garment workers. Keep in mind, this was nearly a year after the promise of change. The report details incidents of pregnant women, union leaders, those with doctor-recommended medical leave, and short-term contracted workers, (among countless others) being threatened or bribed and summarily fired. It also sheds light further illegalities like forced overtime, sexual harassment, impossible production targets, and many other issues. One worked revealed, “If we have taken three days [sick] leave, then they deduct $20 from what we have earned. They say to us: ‘If you want to earn that money back, work more.’ We only bring medical certificates because we feel they will scream at us less.”
The report also discussed the dramatic change in the factories when inspectors, owners, and/or visitors arrived. One worker stated, “Our factory started using the lights this year. As soon as the security guard finds out there are visitors and tells the factory managers, the long light near the roof will come on…. And the group leaders will start telling all the workers to clean our desks; we have to wear our masks, put on our ID cards, and cannot talk to visitors. Everyone knows this is a signal.” Another worker confirmed these actions, saying, “Before ILO comes to check, the factory arranges everything. They reduce the quota for us so there are fewer pieces on our desks. ILO came in the afternoon and we all found out in the morning they were coming. They told us to take all the materials and hide it in the stock room. We are told not to tell them the factory makes us do overtime work for so long. They also tell us that if [we] say anything we will lose business.”
Clearly, there has been little to no reform and even less investigation of conditions at the factories. It also seems obvious that owners, brands, and visitors to the factory are fully aware that the dog and pony show they’re given when they arrive to tour the factories is far from the reality of everyday life in the factory. There is absolutely no accountability from the brands, their CEOS, the factory owners, nor from the governments of the countries (including the US) who profit from the essential slave labor of the workers.
The following is a list of some of the brands responsible for the perpetuation of violence, abuse, neglect, and wage theft in Cambodia:
-Levi Strauss & Co.
Sources and articles cited in this piece: