Crisis in the Cambodian garment sector: workers torn between concern and pragmatism

Ka-set media 16th of March, 2009
Tuesday, March 10th. It’s pay day today at the back of the Canadia market, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Along this never-ending road lined with yellow factories, gathered in small groups, workers are waiting for the gates of their factory to open and for the guards to call them out. Tum, a 22 year-old worker, steps forward without any enthusiasm. She comes back twenty minutes later, her fist clenched over a few bills and her payslip. She is determined to take a bus the next day to go back to her village, in her native province of Kampong Thom. Waiting for some hypothetical job far away from her relatives does not make her happy and on top of that, it is costly. It is now a month since the 43 girls in her shoe manufacturing group started clocking in every day to receive 50% of their initial salary, i.e. US$25. Not even enough to pay for the rent and food.

They heard that their factory would close down after payday. The rumour reached stall-keepers from the nearby market, already disheartened by the significant drop in sales since the Water Festival last year. False alarm. But for these workers, left high and dry, the shutdown of a factory of the suspension of its activity is equally bad: they will not work in March. Many say they won’t last for another month and they will have to go back to “work the ricefield”, an expression which signifies, without considering the rainy season, a return to family activities, land, growing and raising or little country jobs. For some observers of Cambodia’s economy, employers obviously count on that type of defections to reduce their number of employees.

No extra hours any more
To avoid the shutting down of the factory, other strategies are being thought up. In Takhmao, Vy and Hoar are taking a forced holiday. In Chom Chao, Socheata says that his employer, at the factory, made redundant 5% of those employed on a fixed-contract basis and replaced them with workers on a try-out period and whose duration of employment does not exceed a month or two. In that neighbourhood, the most general trend seems to be the end of extra hours, which considerably undermines workers’ wages. The governor of the Dangkor section, Kroch Phan, claims that out of 150 big registered factories and some 50 subcontractors, only 4 closed down. “Subcontractors are the first ones to suffer from the early effects of the drop in orders”, he says.

Chanhan, 23, sews trousers and shirts for an initial salary of $60, knowing that with her extra hours, she used to round up her wages to $80 or $90 every month. “Since the Water Festival, I finish my day at 3pm. There’s work here, but there are no extra hours any more like there used to be before, until 5 or 7pm.” Socheata, 19, used to love working on Sundays as it was better-paid: $3.85 – but this era is over. Bunthon, 19 years-old, has been gluing up shoe soles with her machine for more than a year. It is two months since she too, has stopped working extra hours. Necessarily, there is growing concern as to shrinking salaries. And this is without mentioning all the signs of a collapsing economy…

In workers’ dormitories in Chom Chao, in those 9m2 rooms in which 3 to 10 people are crammed into, the sound of a television or of a radio is non-existent. The news is not translated into words but into actions: a factory closes, workers move out, and rooms are emptied of their residents. “In the space of three months, I lost half of my tenants”, an owner in Chom Chao explains. “For those who lived together with 5 or 10 other people in one room and found themselves living with just one roommate overnight, the whole moving out process meant a heavy increase of the rent for them – as a consequence, those who stay go and live together to share the monthly $25 rent. Let’s hope that the factories won’t close down, otherwise it’s the end! Without any tenant, I won’t be able to pay off my debt.”

At the village too, news travels fast. it is thanks to her neighbours, who are workers, that she heard during the weekend that some factories were about to shut down. Sinuon gives an approving nod: “In the village, almost everyone is related to someone who works in the factory, except for the wealthier families.” Sometimes, it happens that several children also become part of this working-class labour force. Chanhan only has two sisters, who work in different factories than the one she works at, but the three of them manage to send between 60 and $90 every month to their parents.

“Ricefields, not quite the season”
If activity is suspended, they will start looking for a job in another factory or very quickly, they will return to their home village. They laugh because there is not even an inch of doubt, They do not have a choice. “They didn’t wait for the declarations of the prime Minister in Kampong Speu on March 9th. “Living nearby a factory means paying for you own rent, food… If I go back, I will not have to pay for these costs. But there is no work for us in the ricefields at the moment, it is not the right season”, Socheata explains. “And the situation is difficult. With 2,500 m2 of ricefields, my parents get rice for 6 months, but the remaining 6 months, mine and my sister’s wages – she is also a garment worker – pay for the rice.” If anyone is made redundant, Socheata thought about all the possible solutions: if she has no other choice but to go back to her former job – she used to be a rice cake seller – she will. Lina, however, says that she will not be able to stay for long at her parents’. “I will come back to Phnom Penh and look for a job in another factory”, she says.

What about those without land?
This option might well turn out to be complicated considering the escalation of bad figures announced the past few days : garment exportations have plummeted by half compared with the first two months of 2008: one worker out of 7 has been made redundant over the past six months, according to Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh. In addition, estimated figures for future economic growth keep being revised downwards. Interviewed about his own predictions, Roger Tan, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) hesitated before eventually saying: “Orders keep going down. After April, nobody knows what is going to happen.”

At the beginning of this week, prime Minister Hun Sen urged the population to play things down, and explained in brief that the current situation was after all more enviable than the situation under the Khmer Rouge regime… “The fields are awaiting the return of workers. […] In foreign or industrial countries, workers find themselves in situations far more serious because they have no land any more”, he argued. That little sentence, Chan, now an old lady, contradicts it quite easily, while watching her two boisterous grandchildren playing around: “A month’s salary is spent straight away. If children get sick, we have nothing left to cure them. My son-in-law works on a building site, my daughter is at the factory and if the building site closes down, if the factory closes down, we have no land to go and cultivate…”

Going off the track and starting afresh
In the context of the economic crisis, Sina, 22, is not unhappy with the choice she made a few months earlier, to leave the factory and put an end to two years of tedious work. With her savings and the support of her parents and sister, who continues working at the factory, she is paying for a training course with a dressmaker at the nearby market. “Working at the factory only brought me illnesses. The best is to learn a job by yourself, a job you can do everywhere.” Sina has set herself the goal of being able to create the wedding dresses for her future customers, the garment workers. That dream will depend on the fate of these factories, of course. “If they stay there, I will stay. Otherwise, I will go back to Prey Veng.” Her words and her smile do not betray any concern but rather carry some infallible determination.

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