Cambodia's textile workers hang by a thread under Chinese bosses
Western clothing brands profit from lower wages in Cambodia as tensions mount between Chinese factory managers and local garment workers
Pak Kok Heng used to make sweaters for the Pine Great Factory in Phnom Penh. Now, he and his former colleagues spend their days standing outside the Ministry of Social Affairs in the Cambodian capital.
"We're here because we haven't been paid for three months. Our manager ran off back to China and our factory is closed," said the 24-year-old. "We want the ministry to sell off what's left in the factory and pay us the wages we are owed. But they haven't even sent out an official to talk to us. We're very angry with them and that's why we're staying here."
Pak Kok Heng and the 700-odd now unemployed workers at Pine Great, a Shanghai-based company, are not alone in challenging the government of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
For Asia's millions of garment workers, Cambodia is the new frontline in the battle for better pay and working conditions.
With the country preparing to go to the polls tomorrow for national elections, it's the more than 300,000 workers in the booming textile industry who are the most visible and militant opposition to Hun Sen and the CPP.
"There are two main issues in Cambodia now: labour rights and land rights," said David Welsh, the Cambodia country director for the Solidarity Centre, an NGO that monitors global labour movements. "There is a real sense now that there's much greater awareness among workers of their rights."
In the last two months alone, that discontent has sent thousands of employees from factories making clothes for such western giants as Gap, H&M, Levi's and Nike out on strike.
Their demands revolve around a rise in the US$80 a month minimum wage - which up until March was just US$60 - improved working conditions and an end to the short-term contracts that enable companies to fire employees with little or no severance pay.
"Factor in inflation and garment workers are effectively earning the same as they did in 2001," said Joel Preston of the Cambodia Legal Education Centre, an NGO that provides legal aid to factory workers.
For the women who make up the majority of textile employees, rising food and fuel prices have only added to their misery.
"What I earn is not enough to live on, not even for one person," said Phy Phearith. "With overtime, I earn US$80 to US$90 a month. That's for a 10-hour day, six days a week."
The 26-year-old works in the cutting department of one of the five factories in Phnom Penh owned by Macau-based M&V International Manufacturing. Along with her 3,000 co-workers, Phy Phearith has only recently returned to work after going on strike last month for better pay.
M & V is a supplier for H&M, the Swedish company that is the world's second-largest fashion retailer, making ladies sweaters that sell for up to HK$249 in Hong Kong. M & V is among an increasing number of Chinese companies relocating their factories to Cambodia in an effort to cut their overheads.
With the minimum monthly wage in the manufacturing heartland of Shenzhen now 1,600 yuan (HK$2,000), according to the China Labour Bulletin, Cambodian workers are paid almost three times less than their Chinese contemporaries.
Those low wages are the main reason why the World Economic Forum estimates that Cambodia's textiles sector was worth almost US$4.5 billion last year. With clothes making up a staggering 80 per cent of the country's exports, the industry is growing so fast that an estimated 50,000 additional workers are needed to staff the five new factories opening every month.
But while profits are multiplying for the western brands, tensions between the Chinese management of the relocated factories and their Cambodian workers are rising.
"The problem with the Chinese is that they come here knowing nothing about Khmer [Cambodian] culture and that creates conflict," said Kong Athit, vice-president of the CCWADU, one of the many unions that have sprung up in recent years to protect the rights of textiles workers.
"We've heard many cases of sexual harassment and physical abuse by supervisors. Last year, we took a couple of Chinese supervisors to court, but they ran back to China rather than face the court," said Kong Athit.
All the M & V workers the South China Morning Post had spoken to complained about their Chinese overseers.
"They treat us like slaves. They don't care about our health or well-being. We're not even allowed to use the lifts in the factories. We have to use the stairs, but the supervisors can take the lifts," said Phy Phearith.
Oun Sam Oun, a 35-year-old M & V employee, described how hard the workers are driven by their bosses. "We're always being told to work faster. If you take longer than three minutes to go to the toilet, then the supervisors will shout at you."
More workers are now collapsing in the factories. "People faint on a daily basis. The building is hot and humid and the water in the bathroom is straight from the river," said Vouem Yavy, a 26-year-old worker at the Great Union Garment Company factory, which makes men's trousers for H & M. Great Union is ostensibly a Cambodian firm, but its supervisors are from China.
While the factories are supposed to be visited on a monthly basis by government inspectors, that rarely happens, according to workers and NGOs. "I'm not sure I've ever seen a labour inspector at our factory," said Phy Phearith. "I think the government should come and see our conditions, and how we have to work and how we are treated."
Nor do workers have any mechanism to confront abusive supervisors. "If you complain to management, they look and see if you're coming to the end of your contract and then they just fire you. They think you're a troublemaker," said Vouem Yavy.
None of the factories mentioned in this article responded to interview requests by the Post. And because the western brands sub-contract their work to companies like M & V and Great Union, they refer all inquiries on pay and working conditions to them. "The brands won't talk about wages. They say 'talk to our suppliers'," said Kong Athit.
Many of the garment workers live in cramped houses in the narrow lanes behind the clothing factories that dominate south-eastern Phnom Penh.
It is a world away from the shiny new apartment blocks that line the streets of the centre of the capital. Other workers live in villages outside Phnom Penh, standing crushed together in open trucks for their daily commute.
More than anything, it is the disparity between their lives and the minority who have prospered under the increasingly corrupt 28-year-rule of Hun Sen and the CPP that fuels their anger.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has proposed raising the minimum wage to US$150 a month - a powerful reason for the garment workers to vote for them.
Although few observers expect Hun Sen to lose his grip on power - thanks to the CPP's total control of the media and its alleged manipulation of electoral rolls - the garment workers' support for the CNRP is likely to have a positive effect on their future.
"At the moment, the government takes the side of the brands; they don't enforce the labour laws. I think if the CNRP win more seats at the elections, it will put more pressure on the CPP to improve things," said Kong Athit.
Above all, though, it is the brands themselves who workers blame for their plight.
"We don't know how much people in the West pay for the clothes we make, but we know they are expensive," said Phy Phearith. "We don't think it's fair that we get 14 US cents for making a piece of clothing and it's sold for more than US$100."