Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Stealing and Conspiracy

Much has happened in the last week. It all started the weekend I returned from Singapore with my dad. Bloom’s workers had offered to go home the afternoon of the blackout and return on Saturday morning to make up for it. They had initiated this on their own accord while I was away. I was very impressed and thought it was very decent of the workers, so I offered to cook for them. I had thought pork curry was a favourite, but they communicated to Wee, our housekeeper, that they wanted a dish of fish soup with mango (it’s quite nice, but I think nicer without the mango). So we had that and mixed vegetables.

It was a nice bonding session, and part of the reason I wanted to provide everyone lunch. There were already indications there was some trouble while I was away. Wee, our housekeeper, had complained to me about Sipha, Bloom’s trainer, and mentioned that other women were also upset with Sipha. (Because my living quarters is in the same house as the workshop, my housekeeper gets too close to the workers for my comfort, a problem I am trying to sort out as well).

Anyway, after lunch, Sipha and Edany decided to finally visit Tuol Sleng (or the S21 Museum), because I live just round the corner from Tuol Sleng. Just like how I kept putting it off because I was afraid I would get depressed (I finally went, with my friend Swee and her cousin Jinyang), they too did not visit it till that day.

While they were gone, the other women all stayed back and one of them started telling me she saw Sipha stealing from me. Another one backed her up and Wee was getting all excited, putting in her two cents worth. I explained to them it’s hard for me to do anything, as I did not see the alleged act with my own eyes. I do not like to accuse people without evidence. The only thing I can do is to be more alert and try to catch the person in the act. There were a whole lot of other complaints, ranging from Sipha sleeping on the job to her asking one of the women to fetch her drinking water.

Sipha is the first person I hired, and I’ve known her for more than four months now. Because we often go to the market together (one of her skills is she is a good bargainer), I’ve had many more opportunities to interact with her. I trust her and think she’s responsible and honest. Of all the workers, I am closest to her and consider her my right hand woman.

When Sipha returned from work on Monday, I asked her whether everything was alright at work. She said, don’t worry, everything’s fine. Sometimes, I do not know if she says these things because she is so obtuse and unaware of what’s going on, or whether she just doesn’t want me to worry, or whether she’s afraid I’d sack her if things don’t go well. It’s probably a combination of factors.

I decided to just speak openly with Sipha now. After the workers had all left for the day, I told her I was aware of problems with some of the women. Then everything came tumbling out. She was told by one of the women that another of had stolen a clutch purse (I had bought this as a sample) from the workshop. Together with another two workers, she persuaded the guilty party to bring the item back to the workshop, because they were worried Sipha would get into trouble, as she’s responsible for the materials.

Sipha was shocked when I told her what some of the others had told me and asked that she be allowed to sit down with everyone to sort things out. I wasn’t sure about this because in my experience, all this talking usually does no good once the damage is done and the trust is broken between people. Anyway, the next day, I asked the other women whether they were ok about sitting down together and sorting out our issues in the open, once and for all, and in front of each other.

They agreed, so we all sat down on the floor, and with my friend Sophon as our interpreter, tried to air our differences. I thought it was a good cathartic session in one sense, and a few of the women cried, and I must confess, as did I. I told them, “Perhaps you think I am rich. Yes, I am rich, compared to all of you. But my money is limited. I don’t come from a rich family. I’ve told everyone how my parents had to struggle just like you.” (It always upsets me to think about my parents’ hardship earlier on in their lives. It also makes me feel guilty because I sometimes think my parents would be happier if I kept on at a good job and gave them a big fat allowance so they can just do what they like and not worry).

“We worked hard and saved our money. That’s why I keep asking everyone to save money, to think of the future, so your children and you, can have a better life later. It really breaks my heart (“knyom cheu jert”) when I think you would steal from me.”

I explained to them that they’re not cheating me, but cheating the business, each other, and ultimately, themselves. Because Bloom is not an NGO and we do not get donations, we need to make it work on our own and within the budget. If we fail, I can go home and get a job, no problems. But what will happen to all of them?

Later, I explained to Sipha, it’s alright if one of the women stole from me. I do understand, because she is so poor. There are rumours she had done it before at Hagar, had stolen a pair of shoes belonging to a teacher, to sell. For me, it’s alright if she had stolen, as long as she knows it is wrong, and won’t do it again (apparently she had returned the allegedly stolen item after much persuasion from the others). And I believe she won’t.

I have been told that stealing is only to be expected, because people here are just so poor. It may be expected, but it’s still not right. And that’s what I want our workers to know. Because we work as a team, one person’s actions at Bloom affect all the others. One of my good friends, an Australian who’s been working with Khmers on and off over the past 6 years, kept telling me to tell the workers that I too, am just an employee, that I report back to people in Singapore, that the money is not mine, and that I am accountable to others. The reason is to avoid the workers thinking I’m rich and taking advantage of me. I really, really appreciate the advice, but it’s hard for me to lie. It’s too hard for me to be pretending to be something I’m not. I wish I could, and I have thought seriously about it, because it may make my life easier. In the end I decided it’s just too difficult for me to pretend day in day out, for goodness knows how long. I’d much rather be honest and deal with the consequences. I also strongly believe the truth will always be known anyway (the Chinese have a saying--“zhi shi bao bu zhu huo”, or paper can never contain fire).

The meeting went ok, with everyone promising to work in solidarity, but I could tell there was still bad blood between the two main antagonists—Sipha and one of the women.

“Sorry” is the hardest word

The next day, Sipha was in tears because she felt since the meeting, another member of the team had joined forces against her and showed her disespect. It emerged that Bonthuen has been resentful of Sipha ever since she recommended I hire Saren as production manager. Bonthuen wanted that job and blamed Sipha for not giving him the chance. To cut (another) long story short, I told her to take Bonthuen out for lunch and gave her some money for this. Sipha was to explain to Bonthuen exactly why she thought he was not ready for that job. She should also remind him that it was she who brought him into Bloom and she would not have done so had she not thought he was a good worker. I also told Sipha, I would say sorry to Bonthuen, say sorry if he felt hurt, but all she was doing was thinking about what’s best for the business—which is completely true. I told Sipha saying sorry doesn’t cost her any money and makes other people feel better, like you understand how they feel. Initially she refused, she kept insisting she had done no wrong. I’ve been told it’s not in Khmer culture to say sorry and it’s true I’ve found the Khmers to be a very proud people.

The lunch worked and Sipha reported that Bonthuen apologised repeatedly to her for being difficult. As for the issues between Sipha and the other worker, I decided to call in the experts and got Chhorvy, Hagar’s reintegration manager to mediate between the two. I was very direct and brought up the alleged stealing incident when I saw the women were not going to and kept beating around the bush. I wanted it all in the open and we move on. The session was short and everyone was very civil. At the end of it, they both apologised to me for making me upset, but they refused to look at each other when they spoke. I hope we did resolve our problems on that front, but only time will tell.

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