Photography by Tiff Tsang, words by Ellen Tirant
As we dive into another short (yet critical) Fashion Revolution Week, we’d like to offer as much information and support to our community as we can, ensuring that we come out the other side with a broader depth of knowledge as well as clear, concise actions that we can all take.
As a Cambodian clothing company and producer based in Southern Cambodia, we are intrinsically connected to the Cambodian garment industry, although we operate independently and at a different scale. The local industry impacts our business; how our employees approach their work and employment conditions; consumer perception towards our operations, product and prices; governmental policies and procedures; and legal minimum wages.
As an ethical company within this context, it is our duty to ensure that we are doing everything we can to work towards improvements within the local industry, our biggest contributions being the provision of an alternative work environment for garment workers and the education of consumers around the world about the impact of their purchasing decisions.
This brings us to the purpose of this piece - to provide you with an overview of the current climate of the Cambodian garment industry and how our choices can impact the lives of garment workers.
Fair and safe working conditions within garment factories differ from country to country - with regulations, standards and priorities developing in accordance with local needs and requirements, there is no blanket ‘fix’ for the global industry. Yes, there is one united end goal that sees all garment workers subject to healthy and safe working conditions, receiving a living wage for their work. Getting to that end goal is where things get complicated, and it’s important to understand the role of the government, culture, economic climate, unions, historical data and growth etc to fully understand the context and where it is at.
As a relatively young garment industry, the Cambodian sector has progressed rather significantly in a short period of time. The garment industry plays an important role in the Cambodian economy, with the peak of its growth seen through the mid-late 1990’s. The industry now accounts for approximately USD 6.3 billion (roughly 80%) of the country’s total export revenue, employing over 700,000 workers across the country.
Wages in the Cambodian garment sector have been one of the most critical developments of the industry, with the minimum wage more than doubling in the past 5 years. Now, the garment sector is the only industry in the country with a minimum wage, with workers receiving support and guidance from various organisations, workers unions and government departments.
Other issues prevalent in the industry range from job security through the lack of permanent contracts, reports of sexual harassment in the workplace and long working hours.
Although relatively forward in terms of wages and representation by unions, external influences tend to take advantage and continue to exploit workers outside of the workplace.
There are alarming rates of reported family debt, often as a result of poorly managed micro-finance programs. There is no regulation around rental agreements, and gambling, substance abuse and family violence statistics are some of the greatest in the region. Increasing wages is important, however, with each recent labour award change many workers have suffered from landlords immediately applying the same increase to their rent, or temporarily felt financial freedom without support of managing long-term family debt. In the worst cases, people have suffered an immediate increase in domestic abuse.
Arguably the most severe of issues within the industry is transport to and from the factories, where roughly 200,000 workers are packed into open back cattle trucks every day, and herded over long distances on broken, chaotic roads. From July 2017 - July 2018 there were 5 deaths and 503 injuries reported from road accidents involving garment trucks. The most recent and incredibly horrific accident occurred only this month, with the collision of two garment trucks causing 5 women to lose limbs and 3 more severely injured.
Context is vital, and it’s important for consumers to hold explorative conversations within the discomfort of complexity. Without an understanding of context, real efforts to improve conditions and inflict industry wide change fall short of their mark, essentially being rendered ineffective, hopeless and unachievable.
Without a clear insight into what is actually happening, there is no way to effectively bring about long term, critical change. For example, when looking at improving conditions in the Cambodian sector, perhaps our efforts would be better placed in supporting labour organisations already working in the industry to achieve greater impact in their work to improve conditions, such as that by Better Factories Cambodia. We could look at supporting the work of TWG who are currently working with Better Factories Cambodia to improve transport conditions, drastically reducing the number of accidents involving workers travelling to and from the factories.
Absolutely, placing pressure on big brands plays a critical role in achieving this, however it’s important to note that not one party holds all the power and influence to implement serious, long term change. Simply asking a brand ‘who made my clothes’ sometimes isn’t enough. Sure, they can link you through to their list of factories and suppliers, but what information are they providing you on safety standards, employment contracts, outsourcing, workplace, transportation, working hours, community impact…? We must take into account external factors and environment, to ensure that we are placing pressure where the biggest impact can be made.
When you do start to ask brands ‘who made your clothes’, it’s important to ask the rightquestions, appropriate to the scale and operations of the business. A small production house would have a very different reporting system than a multinational fast fashion company, so it’s critical to keep this in mind when approaching a brand and understand that operations have varying impact when applied from varying scales.
For more information on what the concept of 'Know the Maker' actually means, read our blog post here.