Slower but cheap wins it for Cambodia's bra makers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am


Since taking up her factory job in Phnom Penh last month, Mom Sophea has been learning how to stitch sponge cups into bras using a sewing machine.

Sophea, 26, a Cambodian housewife previously a stranger to sewing, is now among the country's 300,000 skilled factory workers, who work eight hours a day, six days a week, for US$61 (HK$476) a month.

In the air-conditioned factory run by the lingerie exporter Top Form International, Sophea and 150 fellow labourers are racing against time to learn their new skills. The more they sew, the more they earn.

Each group of 30 is seated in a row under bright lights, working to meet the benchmark of producing a basic bra within 15 minutes. If they work fast enough, they can take home a monthly salary of US$120 on average.

'It was very difficult at the beginning to handle the sewing machine, but it is OK now,' she said. 'I want to make a better living.'

The Phnom Penh factory is Top Form's newest manufacturing facility outside Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces as fast-rising wages on the mainland eat into profits and Beijing's ambitions of a nationwide industrial upgrade discourages labour-intensive industries.

Thailand and Cambodia, relative latecomers to light industries, have now emerged as cost-effective options. Cambodia stipulates a minimum wage of US$61 (HK$476) a month, Thailand's minimum is 162 baht a day, equivalent to 3,888 baht (HK$964) a month. The monthly minimum pay on the mainland, which varies from region to region, is now above 1,000 yuan (HK$1,220) in western and central regions such as Anhui and Xinjiang .

Even with lower wages, Top Form's chairman, Willie Fung Wai-yiu, said there was some trade-off in producing in Southeast Asia.

Comparing the efficiency of workers in the group's factories in Guangdong, Mae Sot in Thailand and Phnom Penh, Fung said the mainland workers took less time to meet the target of producing a bra within the 15-minute benchmark.

'Our survey shows Cambodian and Burmese workers have a slower learning curve,' he said. 'China can't be replaced for some products with delicate designs and demanding skills.'

In some cases, training covers hygiene. A case in point is the Mae Sot factory, 80 per cent of whose 3,500 workers are from Myanmar, across the border, and where some do not have proper toilets at home.

Since plants' cost and efficiency levels differ, lingerie products with more complicated designs and higher selling prices are produced in the group's mainland factories and those with basic designs and lower prices are manufactured in Thailand and Cambodia, Fung said.

Cambodia's labour record suffered a blemish recently when hundreds of garment workers fainted at work, with some being admitted to hospitals.

Maeve Galvin, a Phnom Penh-based communication and advocacy officer for the International Labour Organisation, said possible factors included bad ventilation, malnutrition, toxic fumes and even psychological factors.

'It is a good thing that more foreign investors are coming to set up factories in Cambodia,' she said. 'They are required to meet various standards on protection and welfare of workers.'