We were lucky to be invited to a garment factory when in Cambodia. Australian retailer Coles kindly extended the invitation to us. Some of the retailer’s MIX apparel range is made in Cambodia and the company wanted to show us first-hand an initiative they’ve been involved in. Coles and Oxfam have a close relationship, as we do with a number of big Australian businesses operating offshore. The relationship Oxfam has with the business sector is varied, but is primarily in an advisory role namely in the area of ethical business practices and, at times, agitating for change.
In Cambodia, Coles has been taking part in the International Labour Organiazation’s (ILO) Lunch Program. The pilot program was started after research found that garment workers experienced high levels of anxiety and uncertainty about food supplies. It also confirmed that 43.2 per cent of garment workers’ were anaemic and 15.7 per cent were underweight.
Five factories agreed to feed workers a free meal each day over a 12 month period and an independent group would then measure the health and productivity improvements that occurred over that time. Coles is solely funding the project at the Fong Yean factory that supplies some of its MIX apparel range, this is despite a number of other high profile retailers also sourcing garments from the same factory. It has also extended the program beyond the initial 12 month period – feeding workers a substantial free afternoon snack each day.
Coles says the program has been a positive one for the company, the factory owner and the factories 850 garment workers.
“It’s been enormously rewarding for us to experience first-hand the appreciation and enjoyment of the workers receiving an additional meal while at work and knowing that we are making a positive impact on worker health and productivity,” says Jackie Healing, General Manager, Responsible Sourcing, Quality and Product Technology.
When we visited, the garment workers, and us, were provided with individual servings of noodles with vegetables and meat. It was delicious and filling. The meals were provided by a local social enterprise whose staff are given pathways to training and development which would otherwise have not been available to them.
What was striking to me when we visited the factory was the precision of the place. Rows-upon-rows of workers with different coloured head scarves to signify which team they were in. Workers were busily getting on with the job – pop music playing in the background. It was clean and well ventilated. The two workers we chatted to about their job were engaging and positive about their future. It seemed like the factory itself was one of the good ones, there are plenty which are not. It seemed that positive change was being made there.
To be honest, I still felt a bit overcome by the magnitude of the operations and I could not imagine what it would feel like to walk into a factory where the businesses sourcing their products weren’t active in driving change. Part of this process – fighting for a living wage and better working conditions – is education of the community, the global brands sourcing products, the local governments and the private operators who own the factories. The issues facing garment workers in Cambodia are complex, systemic and will take time to change for the better. It’s good to see an Australian company being receptive to the importance of more ethical sourcing, when many are not.
Watching the workers mingle with their co-workers over a hot meal outside in the fresh air was something many of us in Australia take for granted, for these workers it was much welcomed.
Coles is still waiting on the findings of the results. It’s hoped the factory owner will continue with the meal program. I really hope this initiative continues.
This is the fourth in a series of posts about my recent trip to Cambodia as part of my work with Oxfam. For more information about the work Oxfam Australia is doing in the area of labour rights go to: https://www.oxfam.org.au/whos-making-your-clothes/