Saturday, January 10, 2009

Theft in the workshop

This happened a month ago. I received a call from Sina, Bloom’s manager in Phnom Penh that “something bad” had happened at the workshop in Phnom Penh. My heart stopped, thinking the workshop had been broken into and that thieves had stolen our machines and materials.

It turned out that two of the women sewers had their gold stolen. I had allowed these two women to live for free at the workshop because they live in Pochentong, near the airport, far from the city where the workshop is located. The two women used to have to cycle for an hour each way, every day, to come to work at Bloom.

More recently I had allowed Theary to live at the workshop. Theary, who has polio, was living with her blind mother and abusive brother at Chrouy Changvar, near the Japanese bridge. Because of her bad leg, she cannot cycle to work and has to pay a motorcycle driver to take her to and from work, at USD1.50 to USD2 a day. I did not want her to spend her hard-earned money that way so suggested she move in with the other two young women already staying at the workshop. All three women got along fine until the bracelets went missing.

That was when one of the victims told me when I spoke to her on the phone (remember I live in Siem Reap, a six-hour bus ride away) that she suspected they were taken by Theary. She said Theary is the only one who knows where the gold was kept and recently, she had stayed in the workshop alone one night when the other two went out for dinner. Because of her bad leg, Theary often stays behind at the workshop when the other two women go for dinner.

The first thing Sina did was to check everyone's bags. When that didn't work, he called me to ask for permission for everyone to go to the pagoda at the riverside in Phnom Penh to swear in front of the gods that they were innocent. This is a typical Cambodian way of handling deceit. Cambodians believe in being punished by the gods when they lie, so whenever there is a problem, people will swear in front of the gods to protest their innocence.

I said ok and I would also give the workers a chance: I wanted all of them to come to work the next morning, even though it was a Saturday, and they only work only Mondays to Fridays. The person who took the gold will be given an opportunity to put it back in its original place and we will drop the matter. If by the next day, the gold is not found, I will pay the police, as you have to in this country, to conduct an investigation (I really did not want to have any dealings with the police. I know despite paying the fee the police would never recover the items). I said I would also sack the thief.

Saturday came and went and the gold was not found. Sina called me and reported that Theary and her mother had come to the workshop, crying and pleading that she had not stolen the gold bracelets, one worth more than USD300 and the other, more than USD400.

Sina then said he had “important information”. It turns out one of the women, the one who had privately accused Theary of taking the gold, had a friend stay over at the workshop one night that week. At that point, I was not told this friend was the woman’s boyfriend. When I questioned who this person was, the woman just said “Pookmark mowk laing” (“Friend come to visit”).

It was Theary who forced the issue on Saturday when she protested her innocence. The woman sewer was forced to admit to everyone present that she had indeed had a friend spend the night. The boyfriend left for Sihanoukville the very next day.

I was angry when I found out that this woman had invited her boyfriend over to spend the night at the workshop. But I was even more angry at the fact that I had almost sacked Theary because this woman had told me all the signs pointed to Theary being the culprit.

I was so furious at her deception I wanted to sack this woman sewer. But Sina felt I should give her a chance. I did consider if I had sacked her, this poor woman--first she loses her gold, then she loses her job. But it's her own bloody fault for inviting an outsider into the workshop and for keeping this vital information from me and Sina to cover her own ass, while pointing the finger at someone else.

This woman then wanted Sina to ask me if I could lend her USD300 to buy another gold bracelet, because she was worried her parents would find out. I offered to lend her USD60 because that was the amount I had previously lent another sewer, Neang. (Neang had been going around with a gapped tooth because she could not afford the USD60 it would cost to fix it, and I volunteered to lend her the money because I saw it was affecting her self-esteem. So in order to be fair to all the workers, I lent this woman USD60 as well, even though I thought it was her own stupidity that led to the theft).

The USD400 bracelet belonged to Chanthy, who has not been to work since that day. When she learnt of the theft, she had cried and left work to see a doctor because she had stomach pains. It could be the stress and depression and when she asked for a month off work, I understood. The sad thing is Chanthy is good friends with the other woman whose bracelet was also stolen. I guess she has to come to terms with the fact that her good friend had inadvertently led to her losing jewelry.

I still do not know why the women kept their jewelry in a bag at the workshop. I have asked Sina and he thinks nothing of it. This is the way Cambodians save money--they trust gold more than banks (which is not stupid, considering the recent performance of banks vis-a-vis gold). I have no qualms about the women buying gold as a form of savings but why not keep it at home with their families or wear the things hidden under their clothes? I just don't get it.

Chhun Hy explains, "You know, they think they eat together, work together, so they can trust each other."

Sina's older sister once had USD400 stolen from their rented room. She had left the door unlocked and they believe it must have been taken by a neighbour. They too, thought, "We live and eat with our neighbours; we help each other out so we can trust them." Sina and his sister were upset of course, but they are also sanguine about it.

Chanthy, too, told me to forget about it. I had called her to ask how she was and when I told her my suggestion about giving the thief a chance to replace the stolen items, she said the plan would not work because "Cambodians are different from foreigners, if they steal, they won't give back." (I think "foreigners" are the same--they will not return what they have stolen either). She also told me not to contact the police, because all they'd want is money and they would not be able to do anything. She kept saying we should just forget the incident.

I feel sorry for the women's loss because they had worked hard for months to save money for the gold. At the same time, I cannot be responsible for the loss and thus will not compensate them for it. I just hope everyone has learnt lessons from this incident.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Seems if it is not "nailed down" it will be stolen . . . sad but true. SD


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