Beautiful clothes, ugly reality: Cambodia’s women garment workers demand decent work and dignity from big brands | ActionAid UK

Rachel Noble

Women's Rights Policy Adviser

Life inside Cambodia textiles factories has been in the spotlight since 40 garment workers were shot at a protest in January (five of them fatally). So what happens when the people who make our clothes, get dressed up in the items they produce – and demand their rights? ActionAid UK's Rachel Noble visited Cambodia's capital to find out.

Garment workers taking to the catwalk in fashion show protest of their low pay and working conditions
Garment workers taking to the catwalk in fashion show protest of their low pay and working conditions

Pumping music, flashing lights, exquisitely made-up women in killer heels strutting down the catwalk: but these weren’t models donning the latest haute couture, but workers from some of Phnom Penh’s 330 export garment factories in the clothes they produce for global high-street brands.

The event, Beautiful clothes: Ugly Reality, was organised by ActionAid Cambodia’s local Safe Cities programme partner, Workers Information Centre (WIC). It sent a powerful message directly from the workers — 80 to 90% of whom are women - to the Cambodian government and the multibillion dollar brands, that their exploitation has got to stop.

Their demands, displayed on placards paraded by the women and voiced in a subsequent Q&A with the media, include raising the monthly minimum wage to $160 (£95.44) to afford them a decent and dignified standard of living, and an end to the short-term contracts that deny women maternity leave and expose them to effective dismissal if they fall pregnant.

Other demands include an end to forced overtime; to be treated with respect and not subjected to violence; opportunities for higher education.

They have also demanded ‘rice not bullets’, a slogan referring to the poor nutritional status of women workers, who often cannot afford sufficient food because of their low pay. This, combined with the long hours in stifling, cramped conditions, has led to mass faintings and a range of health issues, while the privatised healthcare system means treatment is often beyond reach. 

Garment workers campaigning against dangerous working conditions

It is also a call to the government to lift the ban on public gatherings and to end its brutality against civilians, not least since 40 workers were shot by security forces, five of them fatally, during strikes over poor pay in the garment sector in January 2014.  

Twenty-three male workers were detained and released 5 months later, on 30 May, on suspended sentences following a trial that was decried as a sham by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

Poor living conditions

Indeed, the lives of Phnom Penh’s women garment workers are a far cry from the glamour of the catwalk or the image of a ‘cool, carefree lifestyle’ the big brands seek to convey. Mostly young migrants from poor rural areas, these women struggle to cover their basic living costs on the current $100 (£59.65) monthly minimum wage, forcing them to work excessive overtime up to six days a week.

Such abysmal wages leave them no choice but to rent tiny rooms, often shared with 10-15 others. Access to water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare, or education for their children is limited. Transport links to the factories are poor, especially late at night. Returning home on foot after dark along poorly lit streets means they often face violence and harassment.

Concerned about their brand image following the shocking events of January, along with supply disruptions from repeated strikes, have prompted 30 of the major brands to join up with international trade union federations, such as IndustriALL, to condemn the violence and call for the release of the demonstrators

Cambodia's garment workers demand decent work and dignity from big brands

They have also engaged in talks with the government about raising the minimum wage, with initial reports indicating they would support an increase.  Garments and footwear account for a staggering 80% of Cambodia’s exports, with shipments to the US and EU – its biggest markets  — valued at £4.1 billion in 2013. This gives the brands immense power and leverage in influencing such decisions.

Women workers demanding change

While it is positive and encouraging to see the brands responding in this way, the power they wield is, of course, a huge part of the problem. The constant downward pressure they exert on prices paid to the factories for vast clothing volumes in a context of fierce competition between South Asia’s garment exporting countries — many of which have dismal records for human rights and gender discrimination — inevitably leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions for these female-dominated sectors. 

So while brand profits and CEO salaries soar, the business model these companies follow — enabled by the weak regulations and free trade policies pushed by richer governments and multilateral donor agencies — serves to further entrench the economic inequality already endured by poor women in Cambodia and other developing countries.

Garment workers campaigning for decent working contitions and a living wage

However, as the WIC fashion show and wider events in Cambodia show, women and men are increasingly standing up to this exploitation, while engendering a clear vision of a more equitable future. A statement issued by the garment workers at the event read:

“We believe that our unity of our struggle is the key battle against the oppressors and [will] create a better economic model which is a more equitable distribution of wealth… Our unity will create a better path and society so that our children and our children’s children may be free from oppression, exploitation and inhumane treatment”.