Thursday, October 09, 2008

Cambodian sweatshop

My Australian friend and I visited a workshop in Phnom Penh last weekend. We were told about this place by a young Khmer woman who told us her parents worked there cutting pieces of cloth to be made into shirts that are sold in the Olympic Market. They are paid 100 riels (2.5 cents US) for each shirt they cut.

We could not believe it and asked to be taken there. The workshop is housed in a typical Khmer terrace house, a p'tyair l'wairng that has grilles all around its compound (this is typical in Cambodia because robbery is so common). It is near the Russian Market on a street that is nondescript and dead quiet (at least in the afternoon when we visited)--there is no way of telling the house is a sweatshop where young people from the provinces, all teenagers, work for USD25 a month--for up to 19 hours a day.

We entered the house and it was bright and airy. There was a Lexus parked in the driveway and framed photographs of the Khmer family that owns the house and the workshop adorned the walls. There were even certificates--one of which said "Certificate of attendance for Workshop on the WTO agreement".

Upstairs is where the workers work and sleep. They live and eat and shower with the Khmer family that owns the place. This family also owns a shop in the Olympic Market, where the shirts made by the workers are sold. The owners were not there when we visited and we met nine people, and except for the young woman's parents, the others were all teenage boys and girls. We asked what time they work and were told 5am to 12am. I could not believe it and asked again. I asked, "Why don't you go to bed at 10pm, how will your boss know?" They told me the boss sleeps at 8pm every night in the same house and when she wakes up in the middle of the night for a pee, she will kick and beat them if she finds any of them sleeping. The boss wakes up at 5am every day and gets them up to start work.

One of the girls was ironing the shirts with a traditional iron. It is not electric and is filled with coals and is extremely heavy. She looked like she was going to fall asleep and I kept thinking how dangerous it was if she fell asleep and burnt herself. She looked really, really miserable, and I said to my friend after that how such work is absolutely soul destroying. That girl made me think of the term "the living dead".

These kids end up in shitty jobs like these because they come from the provinces and don't know any better and cannot even get a job working in a garment factory because they don't have any experience. They get sent by their families who figure it is cheaper for them to have fewer mouths to feed. In this particular workshop, the workers have no holidays except 3 days each for Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben. That means they work 359 days out of 365 a year. My friend wondered aloud how they'd have time to go shopping, or to the dentist or do anything. It's simple--they don't.

The pajamas, office shirts etc this group makes are sold to Cambodians at the Olympic Market. These range from USD3-6 an item. You go do the maths and figure out how much this Cambodian couple is making at the expense of their fellow Cambodians. Obviously enough to own a house, a Lexus and dine at fancy restaurants.

What this family is doing is illegal, since Cambodian labour laws spell out a minimum wage of USD50 for a 48 hour work week. Overtime pay is 1.5 times the normal, and 2 times should you require workers to work on Sundays and public holidays. Although illegal, no one believes the police will do anything because the rich employers can pay them off. I believe such small exploitative private businesses are common.

I have discovered Cambodians are among the worst bosses and exploiters of their own people. There is a popular Khmer-owned restaurant on Pub Street here in Siem Reap that docks USD1 from staff's pay if they are even 3 minutes late. USD1 when the average pay is USD2 a day--why even bother to turn up if you're late, I wonder? This same restaurant cuts staff's monthly pay to make up a USD100 deposit, which will be returned to the worker when he or she works for at least a year with the restaurant. If not, he/she loses the deposit. Another Khmer-owned one on Pub Street pays its waitresses USD50 a month for 9 hours a day, 7 days a week. In fact I have just offered a young waitress at this pub a job at Bloom at double the wage because I think this particular young woman deserves better. Then there are the expat owned businesses, usually co-owned with a Khmer wife, that treat staff similarly.

This is why I think there is no way for Bloom to compete in Cambodia--we need to sell our bags overseas as well. Say I opened a pub on touristy Pub Street and paid my staff double what everyone else pays. My food and drinks prices will still have to remain competitive (USD3-5 for a meal and USD 0.75 for a mug of beer) in order to attract patrons. With the higher costs, how can I be as profitable as the other pubs on Pub Street? Of course I can't. Can I be even just a little bit profitable? Perhaps, but it will take patience and commitment, not to mention deep pockets.

Of course, some customers will support us if they were told the truth, but honestly, I believe most customers will not care. They just want to stretch their dollar while on holiday. They may even justify their patronage by telling themselves that USD50 is enough for a Cambodian to live on ("It must be, right? Since they do"--Well, yes they do, but it's literally living hand to mouth in cramped quarters). This is if customers even think about it. Most people don't. They go on holiday and they pay whatever prices they find.

How can we make more people understand and care? I don't know. I think about this all the time: Why do people not care more? I have come up with a few theories:

1. Most people think: I work hard for my money, and I want bargains so I will have more money left over to pay for my house, kids' education etc.

2. Most people have hard lives themselves, hard in the emotional sense, and think "Everyone has problems; I'm certainly not responsible for theirs (the Cambodians, Burmese, Haitians etc). I'm here on holiday, to relax; not to get stressed over human rights issues."

3. Most people do not want to feel ripped off, they want to pay fair prices and to them fair means what everyone else pays, what is market rate--even if market rate prices appear fair to the customer and the shop owner, but not fair to the worker.

4. Most people are so brain-dead from their dead-end and demoralising jobs, they don't think.

Anyway, if you have any ideas on how to change consumer behaviour or even to help me understand why people spend money the way they do, please do let me know. Tell me how you behave when you go into a shop. What do you think about and why?

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