Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Cambodian man's dream of marrying a foreign woman

These lovelies from Malaysia popped by to buy some bags and Chhun Hy insisted on me taking a photo of him with the women! Chhun Hy is very charmed by Malaysian women--he thinks they are very pretty. He and his family from Kampong Cham would like him to marry a foreigner. I always assumed it was because the family wants Chhun Hy to marry into wealth, but the reasons are more layered than that.

If Chhun Hy were to marry a Khmer woman, he would have to pay a dowry of USD2000-3000 to her family. On top of that, he and his future wife would have to share to pay for their wedding ceremony, about USD1000 each. He feels that it is too expensive for him to marry a fellow Cambodian, so that is why he'd like a foreigner for a wife.

I find the whole idea ridiculous. There are so many poor people in Cambodia--don't tell me they cannot get married? Chhun Hy explains, "Yes they can, but they would have to marry another poor person. But if you want a house, a motocycle, a business, you need to marry a rich woman."

But you will have to pay a lot of money to marry this rich woman, I reminded Chhun Hy. But it is a small investment, he argues. He keeps repeating,"In Cambodia, [it is] like this. Also in Thailand, men want to marry rich women."

Because Chhun Hy is the only one living with foreigners (he lives with us), can speak English and is taking computer lessons, and has tripled his income in a year, he is his family's hope of a better future. So they continue to dream of him marrying a foreigner. I try to explain marriage is so much more than money, but I fear it falls on deaf ears.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Taxi/Bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok

Update [24.06.2009]: A few readers have told me the road from Siem Reap to Poipet is almost all paved, which makes the journey shorter. I checked with a travel agent next to the Bloom shop here in Siem Reap, and she says the journey has been cut by 2 hours, if you are taking a bus all the way. It now takes 8 hours compared with 10 previously - 3 hours from Siem Reap to Poipet and 5 hours from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok (including the border crossing). The cheapest bus ticket I've found costs USD7.50 and will take you right to Khao San Road. You will need to change buses once, after you've crossed the border. In Siem Reap, you will be taking a bus which will pick you up from your guesthouse if you book with a travel agent, but the bus you change to may turn out to be a mini-van, depending on the number of people who go on to Bangkok (many people, Cambodians especially just take the bus to the border).

Right, as promised I will tell readers about how I travelled by land from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Before embarking on the trip I tried searching the Internet for advice and found that most shared advice on going from Bangkok to Siem Reap, but few write about the trip in the other direction. So here goes:

Cambodia and Thailand share a border. The Cambodian side of the border is called Poipet and the Thai side is called Aranyaprathet.

From Siem Reap, you can either take a bus or a taxi to Poipet. I booked a taxi for USD30 and for that you get the whole car to yourself (a Toyota Camry with air-con which is necessary because the road can get very dusty). I booked the taxi through a travel agent but asked the driver how much was his cut and he said USD25, so presumably you can pay USD25 if you know a taxi driver and bypass the agent.

It took us a little over 3 hours to get to Poipet. The roads are not as bad as we had been told. It was a bit bumpy in the beginning for about an 1 hour but it was fine further on. The roads are mostly like this--red and dusty but you will come across stretches of concrete roads. Really, it is not that bad. You will come across many detour signs -- it seems the Cambodians are building small bridges everywhere, for what purpose I do not know. I was told by the taxi driver that the Cambodian government will be improving the road (rumour has it a Thai airline company has been paying the Cambodian government to keep the roads bad so more people will choose to fly). You will also see electricity poles and about 2 hours into the trip, you will see a number of houses that carve large buddhas from stone.

The taxi does not take you up to the border, only to a roundabout from where you can walk to the Cambodian Immigration booth to get your passport stamped. As soon as you alight from the taxi, you will be approached by young men pushing large wheelbarrows. These guys will offer to take your luggage for you to the border. I did not use their services because our bags were manageable, but I think they were just trying to earn a living. So if you cannot be bothered to lug your bags, you can consider paying one of them USD1 to help you (they'll take your bags right up to the border).

It is a 2 min walk to getting your passports stamped. It is on the right side of the road--you will not miss the immigration office, so don't worry. We left at 6:30am and arrived before 10am, so there was hardly any one in the queue.

After you get your passport stamped, it is still a long walk over to the Thai side. Just keep walking straight ahead for about 15mins. Along the way you will pass by a couple of large casinos and even though you are still on Cambodian soil, the roadside stalls and cafe all charge baht. There is an ANZ teller along the way and I took out some USD to change into baht.

Then you keep left to go to the Thai immigration room. Remember to fill in a departure card--both sides--before getting your passport stamped by very grumpy Thai officers. I have to say the woman Thai immigration officer is the rudest one I have encountered in the dozens of cities I have been (except for an Aussie man who asked me the most offensive questions like, "so Diana what will you do if you meet a nice Australian man?" way back in 1990 when I was still a teenager travelling to Australia for a holiday with a friend.)

The Thai woman official would not speak to me and would not lend me a pen to fill in the back part of the departure card. Her disdain conveyed that Thais don't care much for foreigners or for the English language.

Once you cross the border comes the tricky part. Forget about finding bus companies nearby. What you will find is a little village of small shops selling drinks, food, clothes etc. The first thing to do if you have not already changed baht is to get some. I could not find a money changer so I took cash from a machine from a bank which is on your right.

Mom sat down at one coffee shop while I went to look for the bus that will take us from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. I turned left and down a slope and came to a large bus depot. There were many people waiting for buses, but one thing about Thailand--very, very few people speak English. It comes as a surprise coming from Cambodia, especially Siem Reap, where many locals speak English.

Anyway, I approached what looked liked the bus "office" (on the right). You will see staff in uniforms, but no one could speak English. The staff approached a Thai woman who spoke English, who then told me to go back up the slope to a bus company and asked that I buy tickets from there. She said the buses at the depot are for locals; tourists take the bus from that company.

Then she motioned for me to get on a little tram-like vehicle which provides free transport around the area. We hopped on and went back up the slope to where the company was (I forget the name but there is only one there--and it is really a travel agent that is set up to look like a ticket booth). There are 2 buses you can take. One takes you to Khao San Road while the other takes you to a bus station in Bangkok. The tickets cost 250 baht for the Khao San bus and 300 baht (USD9) to the bus station. The Khao San bus would leave at 1.30pm so I took the other, which was leaving at 11am. I was told that a staff member would take me to the bus.

He did--he brought me and mom back to the same bus depot where we boarded a double-storey bus. Unlike Cambodia, you do not get tags for leaving your luggage in the compartment under the carriage, but that turned out not to be a problem. The bottom storey of the bus does not have 2-seater seats, only a lounge-like room, which had a U-shaped seat around a small table and a couple of double seats. We were told to sit with a bunch of strangers on the U-shaped chair. I wasn't very pleased for the lack of privacy but it turned out ok and the Thai people (we were the only foreigners on the bus) were friendly.

Just before we took off, a woman came over collecting money. She asked me for 200 baht. I asked why? It turns out you can buy tickets on board the bus. And they are only 200 baht each; not 300.

The bus has a toilet and stopped once during the 5 hour trip. Thailand is obviously a rich country: roads are huge and paved and along the way you will see huge car showrooms. The bus stopped at a petrol station that had many hawkers selling fruit, fried bananas and sweet potatoes and there was even a 7-eleven.

Once you get to Bangkok, don't panic. Bangkok is a large city and if it looks industrial, do not worry. Eventually the bus will take you into the heart of the tourist areas near Sukhumvit and Rama IV roads. We got down at one stop and took a taxi to Sukhumvit cos that is the only place I could remember (where the 4-faced Buddha is located). We ended up at the Central shopping mall which was lucky, because there was a large outdoor exhibition on the environment worth seeing.

We then decided to go to Khao San for cheap accomodation. It was already after 5pm so traffic was a killer and taxis would only take us there for USD10. Many taxis in Bangkok refuse to use the meter, but be patient and you will eventually be able to find one that does. We were tired so when a tuk tuk offered to take us for 150 baht (about USD5), I said ok. Later on we took a metered taxi to the same place and it cost us only 80 baht, if that.

That's it. I'll write about the trip home and the (other) hucksters I encountered.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Blood, sweat and T-shirts - BBC documentary

If you are still not convinced it is unfair that there are human beings who work hard to earn pittance, this BBC show will open your eyes. Six Brits experience what it is like working in India to produce the clothes that they buy all the time in the UK, without a thought as to who makes them and how they are made. Here's what they concluded:

"I know that I personally, would be happy to pay a little bit more for whatever I'm buying, to know that it hasn't been made in horrible conditions, getting paid next to nothing." (6:34)

"A safe working environment where you are not going to die of disease, is not a lot to ask for" (8:24)

"Brands that get clothing made in places like this should be quite ashamed of themselves." (8:29)

BBC Panorama: Primark on the Rack

While on the topic of sweatshops, watching this BBC expose on Primark, a British high-street retailer, about a month ago made me so angry I posted it on my facebook profile. Here it is for readers of this blog. Primark claims to make clothes ethically but the excellent Panorama team traced its supply chain to refugee camps in India where children as young as nine make clothes for as little as 1 pence (2 US cents) an item.

And it's not just Primark. I know of online retailers who claim to buy "fair trade" products from "women's cooperatives" in Cambodia and it is just bullshit. These so-called "women's cooperatives" pay piece rate and the women have to work like mad to make a living wage, because there is no base salary. Or you have organisations that pay minimum wage base salaries of USD50 and make the women work overtime piece rate to make up the rest of the wage. It is outrageous that consumers are lied to on a constant basis. These retailers DO NOT CARE how the things are made. I really believe many times they know workers are being exploited but they choose to look the other way. Or they make it a point NOT to investigate.

In Cambodia, the same thing happens with aid money. I was told just today that a large NGO here in Cambodia does not bother to speak with actual beneficiaries in the provinces. They speak only with the village chief who submits the names of his relatives or those who bribe him as candidates for the donation. It's so easy to cheat donors' money.

These NGOs and retailers have such an easy way out--they can always blame the next guy along the chain, the village chief or the supplier. "It's not our fault, we were misled too!" they will exclaim indignantly. Bullshit. It *is* their fault. These organisations can do much more if they wanted to. Indeed, it is their obligation to do due diligence and not pass on the lies to customers/donors.

If you want to be a responsible consumer, please do not take retailers' written policies at face value: talk is cheap. Ask yourself how you can buy a top for 3 pounds (USD6) and yet producers are paid a living wage. How is that possible? (On the flip side, be aware that just because a ricebag is sold for USD40 does not mean workers were paid fairly for making it).

I know people want to save money when they purchase things, but surely not at the expense of someone else's suffering. Other people do not exist as machines that churn out cheap things, just so we can save our money for buying more stuff. Please, don't be an accessory to the exploitation of workers. Please, be more conscious of what you are paying for.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Nike sweatshop found again-this time in Malaysia

Hytex is reputedly the largest T-shirt manufacturer in Asia and it also manufactures for Nike. The factory is in Kepong, an hour's drive from KL in Malaysia. They exploit workers from Bangladesh, Vietnam and Burma who work 6 days a week for 45 Australian dollars (about USD40). Watch how these men live in appalling conditions while earning a monthly wage that is less than the cost of a Nike T-shirt in Australia. Expose by Australia's Channel 7 news.

Here is Nike's response

What is interesting to me is Nike has been in business for what, 30 years? And it *still* has problems managing its suppliers. Isn't it time Nike focuses on being the manufacturer of sporting goods instead of being just a brand that outsources the manufacture of its products? It's big enough, has deep enough pockets to do its own manufacturing in-house, yet chooses over and over, to outsource to unreliable partners that disappoint them and their customers. Its a sign surely that Nike only wants to commit to those aspects of business where the big bucks are - branding, marketing, media- and not the actual making of goods.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How *not* to hire and manage Cambodian staff

It's been over a month since I've updated the blog, which I do apologise for. I have been so very busy, traveling to Bangkok and to Phnom Penh (twice) in the last month. Cambodia is a big country, and it takes me six hours by bus to go to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, where I live and where we have a Bloom shop. It's like going from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, which also take 6 hours. I come from Singapore, where everything and everywhere in the country is accessible within an hour's bus journey, and despite the constant traveling in Cambodia, I am still not used to it.

(For the Bangkok trip, I took a taxi and then bus, which deserves an entry in itself.)

For now, just a quick update to tell readers Bloom had its worst crisis in the 20 months we have been in existence. I try not to write about the problems Bloom faces, but at the same time I don't want to give the impression a). it is easy doing business in Cambodia b). it is easy setting up and running a social enterprise. I write this in the hopes people will learn from my experience.

I'll write more when I feel less tired. All I'll say now is our Cambodian manager, Sipha, whom I have referred to in this blog as "my right hand woman" and honest etc, turned out not to be the person I thought she was. It was very disappointing and hurtful to learn she had been systematically stealing from Bloom, by inflating receipts and by stealing materials we purchase for Bloom (such theft is very common in Cambodia). In addition, she had been undermining the business by sewing our designs for other shops in Phnom Penh, including one in Beong Keng Kang 1. The BKK1 shop owner is a lovely Khmer woman and we had a long talk about Sipha's behaviour and the sympathetic owner even let me take photos of the bags as evidence that Sipha had been selling Bloom bags on the side.

I sacked Sipha on the spot when I went to Phnom Penh about a month ago. On the advice of a Cambodian friend I also placed an advertisement in the main Khmer newspaper that announced that Un Sipha is no longer employed by Bloom, so we will not be responsible for her actions henceforth. She called up someone I know and said she wanted to sue me for the ad etc. (there is no basis for the suit as I did not describe what she had done in the ad, although I am fully aware I am describing what she has done here, on this Internet posting. The reason I dare to do this is because I have evidence, the receipts and the testimonies of the shopkeeper and the market supplier). I was even told to be careful of acid attacks. One British guy I met for advice told me how he had a hand grenade thrown into the company's compound after he had sacked a staff member who was a former Khmer Rouge soldier. In short, I was advised, let things go. "Khmers can be very funny when it comes to losing face," was what the British man told me.

It has been very distressing time. Incredibly distressing. Close friends will tell you how one day I just broke down and sobbed and sobbed. I just could not stop. I was so very hurt and betrayed. Sipha had *nothing* when I met her--a mother of four who had left her drunk and abusive husband and had been out of a job for months, after Hagar asked her to leave. I remember how she had only one pair of shoes. By the time I had asked her to go, she had a dozen pairs of shoes (she was constantly buying shoes) and was staying in a three story flat from which she was profiting by renting the upper two levels for more than what she paid in rent. She even managed to buy USD3000 worth of land near Sihanoukville.

Which brings me to another point- I was very angry when I found out after this incident that I had been given someone via Hagar's job placement scheme, someone who had herself been sacked by Hagar. Incredibly, Hagar's job placement manager, disagreed with me that Hagar's job placement processes needs improving when I pointed out to her Hagar should not be finding jobs for people they themselves had sacked. She insists she cannot guarantee the women's behaviour. I do not ask for guarantees but surely it is fair to expect the NGO from whom you hire staff to tell you if they had sacked someone they then recommend you hire. The manager thinks I am trying to push all the blame onto Hagar for recommending I hire Sipha, when I should accept responsibility for not being more stringent with her. I told her yes, I do know it is my fault for trusting her with so much (never, ever trust your Cambodian staff with money is the comment I have gotten since this happened). As a result I have put new processes in place, for stock controls and have also hired a part time accountant based in Phnom Penh to check all the receipts and stock levels. I am also seriously contemplating moving back to Phnom Penh. But Hagar should not do this anymore--they cannot, should not, *must not* pass on a bad staff member to another organisation.

I will say it clearly: I do not think Hagar is a bad organisation. On the contrary, they have helped many, many women, women like Neang and Sophea and Kemhut, by training them and giving them the skills that enable them to get jobs like the ones at Bloom. Hagar also gives rice and bicycles to women who need these items. For that I thank them.

What I am saying is that no one and no organisation is perfect, and Hagar's job placement processes are far from perfect. I would like Hagar and other NGOs that provide skills training to not, ever, find jobs for someone they themselves had sacked. I know the reason why I was passed Sipha was because of pity, because people wanted to help this poor person, to give her another chance, but it is unfair and wrong for someone else to shoulder the risk of giving this person a second chance. At the very least, there must be disclosure to the new employer.

So, a very distressing period but a very, very useful one. I've learnt a lot from this incident and truly believe that Bloom can only benefit from this experience. We are already showing signs of improvement--we are working more closely as a team and former Bloom staff have actually come back (for free! who says all Khmers are grasping?) to help me during this time of crisis. One, Sina, has even quit his job at the Raffles le Royal to come back to work at Bloom. I feel so very lucky to have good friends like Sophal, my tuk tuk driver who found me a new workshop and Heng, who is always on hand for advice on how things are done in Cambodia. And Kerri and Virginie and Jimmy, of course, for being there when otherwise I would have been alone in Phnom Penh.


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