She smiles proudly as she shows us her home. It is a dark, musty, 3 sq m by 3 sq m room. There is barely enough space for her wooden, slatted, double bed. Thin mats are bound tightly and placed at the bed-head; they will be rolled out and used as mattresses. She will not sleep alone. She shares her room with another garment worker. She counts herself lucky as many others share a similar-sized space with up to two other people.
All their food is wrapped in plastic bags, because of the rain and humidity, and they hang neatly in rows above the kitchen area. The floor is swept, it is very neat and pictures are stuck on the wall. There is no toilet, they share a “women’s only” toilet block. There is a “men’s only toilet” block too, right next to it. You have to walk through long weeds and mud to get there. Rows of tiny homes look out over the amenity blocks, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Light from fires or candles can help occupants navigate the journey at night. Yet prying eyes and unwanted advances are some of the unavoidable risks of simply going to the toilet in the dark. If you pay more rent, you may get a room with a toilet, but money’s tight.
There are about 300 people who live in this “neighborhood”. Rows of tiny rooms, upon rows of tiny rooms.
There is limited protection from the thunderous skies. Privacy and comforts are scarce. It is confronting, dirty and claustrophobic.
People gather out the front of their homes, there’s more room outside. They cook over fires, wash and drink from big pots that collect the water from plastic bottles rigged up on their roofs supplied by the water company.
Children dart around the place, laughing and playing. They climb on a big tractor that sits idly besides a big dirt mound. The builders have stopped for the moment or indefinitely. Tools left for children to play with. A man pushes piles of rubbish into an already overflowing skip, which sits next to a strangely abandoned “fun fair”. A faded ferris wheel sits stationary. Next to it a trampoline is filled with local kids squealing with delight – it is school break and some have come to visit their mothers who work in the factories.
The worker, who I will not name for her own protection, is proud to show us her home, but she is withdrawn. She is worn down. She often works a six day week, from 7am to 6pm (that includes two hours of mandatory overtime each day). On average, if she meets all her quotas, doesn’t take time off and works all her overtime she will earn just over $US200 per month. Up to half of that money she will send home to her family, to help pay for her siblings’ education. The rest will be used to pay rent, food, water and power costs and other living expenses. It leaves little for her, if any.
On her day off she cleans her home, hangs out with friends, practices her English and goes on Facebook.
Despite working such long hours she still lives in a room smaller than my bathroom. And she can’t even go to the toilet in private.
We met her at one of the Worker’s Information Centre’s (WIC) drop-in centres. The WIC is part of the United Sisterhood Alliance – a partner of Oxfam. They provide support and advice to garment workers. Their organisation is run by women, some former garment workers, and it changes lives.
The drop-in centre is close to her where she lives. It’s a large room, with a toilet, filled with colourful posters explaining workers’ rights and books. There they meet with other garment workers to relax, share their stories and get support for any issues they are facing. The women we meet there range in age from early 20s to early 30s. They are welcoming, open and excited to be practicing their English. For those who do not speak English there are translators.
We do not take photographs of their faces, give their real names or say which province they work to protect them. They all work in garment factories making clothes and swimwear for some of the world’s leading fashion brands.
Their stories are all similar. They all work on average six days a week, plus overtime. They all earn between $US150 to $US250 per month. It is largely variable depending on absenteeism, meeting their daily quotas, overtime or sickness. They speak of being afraid of their supervisors who at times call them names, threaten them and one worker tells us about a supervisor who would call them “mother f***ers”. They are all on short term contracts and fear doing the wrong thing in case they do not have their contracts renewed. As long as they keep working, don’t make a fuss and keep their work standards high, they will be ok.
They talk of not being able to afford good quality food, how red meat was too expensive and how the markets supplied rotten and bruised fruit and vegetables, but that was their only choice. Those lucky enough to be provided cooked rice at work said it made the factory more appealing over others which did not provide any meals. And they also discuss how they often have headaches, sore arms and backs and how expensive it is to see a doctor. It seems everything is more expensive for garment workers and if their landlords hear of a wage rise they just lift their rents.
They were all members of a union, which also takes a slice of their pay. The good unions keep pushing for a rise in the minimum wage, which is currently $US128 per month, and will help workers navigate grievances. The good unions are also there when the factories close unannounced, often not paying workers’ compensation. The bad unions are corrupt and do nothing except take their money.
They smile and laugh and talk about their favourite Cambodian celebrities and mention their love for Taylor Swift, The Titanic and Michael Jackson. They giggle about boys they have met.
One worker speaks of how she misses her children and only sees them when there is a long holiday break. She is divorced and had to return to work in the factory, leaving her kids in the village with her parents.
Through an interpreter, I ask her what she dreams for her children and she says: “I want my children to have a higher education and not work in a factory like me”. She misses them. I tell her about my children. I stop speaking so I do not cry. Her eyes fill with tears. “I miss them a lot, but I talk to them on the phone and sometimes they visit me”. Her dream: to start a tailoring business in her village and live with her children.
The other workers found the question of “dreams” a strange concept. Some were quite quick to respond – a legal consultant and an English teacher. The other half giggled, they were either too nervous to speak of their dreams aloud, didn’t understand the question or didn’t have any. To be frank, they didn’t have a lot of spare time to dream.
As we said our goodbyes they wished us good luck. We smiled and laughed and they took selfies with us. They are strong women, they want for a better life and with each garment they produce they help make a difference in their families’ lives.
The worker, who showed us her home, stays at the drop-in centre. She is visibly happier there. It is there he dreams are supported. She hopes of becoming a tour guide. I hope the same for her.
This is the second 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/