Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Crooked "Customers", Copycats and Culture

So I get a call the other day from a tuk-tuk driver asking me where my house is because his customer wants to know. Obviously there's a miscommunication. He puts me on the phone with his customer, a French bloke who then asks me where the Bloom shop in the Russian Market (in Phnom Penh) is. They're at the market but cannot find it (unsurprising because the market is a maze). So he puts me back on the phone to speak with his tuk-tuk driver cos he can't speak English well or any Khmer and the driver cannot understand him.

Fine, I give the necessary directions (its shop number 808, and near the food market, where the "famous ice-coffee" shops are, in case you are looking too). I even called the tuk-tuk guy back to ensure they did find the shop.

Then when I was down in Phnom Penh 2 weeks ago, our shop assistant tells me about this "French man who talk like girl-girl" who told her he had arrived from Siem Reap where he had also visited the Bloom shop. He went specially to our Phnom Penh shop, not because he was looking for designs not carried in our Siem Reap shop, but for more sinister intentions.

He told Sok Yee he would pay her money and buy two bags (if she gives him a discount of course) if Sok Yee would tell him where the women work (he wants to see more designs, he says) and if she puts him in touch with the women. Turns out he wanted to bypass Bloom and hire the women to copy our bags for him. Sok Yee was on to him, because it is not the first time it has happened. In fact, that was what sacked Bloom manager Sipha did, taking customer orders and instead of letting the Bloom team know, she would sew the bags herself and outsource to other sewers and keep all the money. The reason she was able to was because the previous shopgirl was in cahoots with her and would pass her (instead of me) customer requests.

Thankfully Sok Yee is honest and told him that all the stock is in the shop and with Diana and suggested he speak with me. The effeminate French man then said, "I don't want to buy from Diana. She sells expensive." Damn right I sell "expensive" - the term a selfish git like him would use for our prices - other people use the word "FAIR". Bloom's prices are higher than the typical market stall because as I take pains to explain all the time, Bloom has fixed costs such as good salaries (and holidays and bonuses), rent for the workshop, utilities, etc etc that these market stalls do not have. They pay women sewers piece rate, so are able to price their bags cheaply (their cost is the material cost plus labour, which can range from as little as USD0.10 to USD3 a bag, depending on size). Bloom cannot. (Read "Business Competition in Cambodia" in this blog for more).

I say clearly on the blog if you want a bargain bag, don't come to us. If you feel you cannot afford to pay a fair price, then go elsewhere. Cambodia is full of exploitative shops and factories. You will not have to look hard to find your cheap bag. Honestly, I am not interested in selling to people who have disdain for a person's right to fair wages. If you want to save your money so bloody much, go to China or Indonesia. I guarantee you will be able to buy armloads of cheap bags, all churned out by young people who leave their hometowns in search for jobs to feed themselves and their families and end up working as virtual slaves, earning USD45 for an entire MONTH! How much do you think the French man earns? The same guy who wants to build a business copying other people's products and paying the workers pittance to do the job while maximising profits for himself?

I am furious just typing this. The Bloom team and me have worked hard (for two years!) to build our reputation for quality bags and we work hard to try to survive in a place where we compete head on with dubious NGOs and capitalistic businesses (like this guy imagines he will set up), without compromising our commitment to justice and fairness for workers and our commitment to quality and fair prices for customers. (It should be known that there are shops on Phnom Penh's posh St 240 and elsewhere that charge double what we do for similar, if not identical, bags. The whole point about Bloom is to MAKE TRADE FAIR (apologies to OXFAM)- this means FAIR WAGES to workers and FAIR PRICES to customers).

I hate cowards like this girly French man. You want to copy our bags and outsource to other sewers? Fine, pay the right price for the Bloom bag and take the bag to your own people. Go find sewers to copy the designs - they are everywhere. You don't have to limit yourself to the Bloom team. In fact, the Bloom manager I sacked, Un Sipha, has set up her own shop and workshop to take on orders from people like this French guy - people who want to pay cheap and get the exact same bags as Bloom. That's right. The sacked manager, whom I taught everything, has started her own copycat business, even housing her shop at our former shop at the Russian Market, stocked with all our designs. (A British friend living in Phnom Penh alerted me to the shop and I laughed when I heard she tells people she was the former designer at Bloom--most of our designs are adapted from bags I own from Singapore, such as the grocery shopper and messenger and gym bags. She was not much of a designer, but hell of a copier).

As I have said before, I don't mind copycats. I find it rather amusing, maybe because I do believe Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In fact, some days I think if Sipha who had nothing when I met her 2 years ago is now able to become a businesswomen, then it is a measure of success on my part. From the beginning I had told Sipha about the aim for Bloom to be a workers' cooperative so she and the other women would own, manage and grow the business. I shared with her everything about running Bloom, because I believed she would be one of the team leaders in the cooperative.

Thinking back, there were signs she was not the right one to lead the team, because she was constantly telling me we should not tell the other women how much it costs to make per bag, and especially, how much we sell them for. The women, including Sipha, who all trained at Hagar, had no idea how much the bags they were making were selling for at Hagar--all they knew was theirs (and each others!) wages.

And Sipha thought this was the way it should be - managers should be privy to certain information and workers should be kept in the dark. If they know too much, they will have ambitions or demand more. Turns out, Sipha thought like this because it takes one to know one. If was Sipha who was harbouring ambitions. [But that is not wrong itself. People with initiative think about starting their own business all the time. That was the case for me. Why should Cambodians be any different? What she did wrong was to have stolen money from me. If not for the fact she stole goodness knows how much from me and the Bloom team, Sipha would have my blessings and even assistance. Now I treat her like I never laid eyes on her.]

To me, the more workers know about the business, the better. This means they would feel a sense of ownership and a clear idea of where the business is headed. I have always managed like this, something I had learned from my very first Australian bosses. In Singapore, when I eventually ran the company, we would have monthly meetings where I would share the budget with staff, meaning what we projected for the month and the year, how we did in actual fact and the reasons why, and how we are going to get to what we projected. Staff appreciated this and the more I shared, the more I felt staff wanted to work hard for our common goal.

Sharing business information is even more important at Bloom, because if I intend to hand the business over to the Cambodian team, they need to know as much as possible. That is why I have always told Sipha I do not like secrets and insisted she shared information with the staff. One problem - and this is a lesson for expats - is because I was not so confident with my Khmer, I spoke only to Sipha, expecting her to convey the information to the team. Of course she didn't. The lesson is always talk directly to ALL your staff, don't trust your manager, or indeed, translator, to convey everything for you.

Back then, my conversations with Sipha often left me pondering about the hierarchical nature of Khmer society--why the higher ups would talk down to workers and why they would throw their weight around. Even dressing was used as a tool to establish status. Khmers are always telling me to dress better to show I am the boss, to not ask questions, but just tell staff what to do, to order, not discuss. My style has always been to ask questions and build consensus, because as I always tell the team, everyone has ideas, not just the managers. I often wonder if I'm knocking against a brick wall--how do I expect the team to appreciate what I am trying to do, how can they work in cooperation as a team, with respect for each other, if all they know is to either to order or be ordered around? I also think they do not trust me because they have had lousy bosses who may have promised them the world and then abandoned them. How can I show I mean what I say?

Frankly I am still not sure if the cooperative is a pipe dream. I worry Bloom will fall apart the day I leave the country and leave Bloom in the hands of our Cambodian team. All I know for sure is I will keep trying, to show them by actions, that I believe in them, that they are capable of caring for one another, that they are capable of making Bloom work on their own. One thing I am doing now is to tie the workshop (production) with the Russian Market shop (sales). I have told them that if the shop makes money, they will share all the profits. Hopefully that way they learn more about business, instead of just wanting to complete their sewing, without understanding what sells and what doesn't. I want the women to learn what customers want and listen and come up with ideas for improving the business. Like I said, I don't know if it is a pipe dream, but I want to try to make it work.

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