The garment industry in Cambodia provides cheap labour that allows for low prices and fast paced fashion worldwide. However, the irony is that the people producing the clothing are struggling to earn their living.
“In January, I earned 93,300 riel (US $ 23.60), but everything has got more expensive. The prices of vegetables, meat and fish have all gone up and just before the salary increase, my landlord raised the rent of my room to 20,200 riel (US $ 5.10) per month,” said Eang Sok Nath, a garment worker, who works 12 hours a day six times a week.
Cambodian garment industry has been under fire for several years. In what is the country’s largest unofficial employment sector, workers are subjected to forced overtime and poor working conditions in factories. Several surveys show that the wages of approximately 7,00,000 workers in the garment industry are often too low to lead a decent life.
Earlier this year, the minimum wage increased from 56,700 riel (US $ 14.33) per month to 62,000 riel (US $ 15.67); however it hardly made a difference. Also starting this year, workers have to pay a monthly contribution to a national health care plan. Although the health insurance can save workers a lot of money when they need medical assistance, many feel they’ve had to give up a substantial part of their salary increase. With every salary increment, many workers are in turn faced with an increase in living costs – rent and electricity prices go up and food and transportation too gets expensive.
Additionally, the current minimum wage is still below the 115,000 riel (US $ 29.00) – living wage recommended for Cambodia by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of unions and labour activists.
Workers also say that together with their wage increase, the workload has gone up. Same amount of work is done with less people than it was two months earlier. “If we don’t reach the target we will have 4 hours of overtime,” said Eang.
Around 600 factories in Cambodia produce clothing and shoes for major brands such as H&M, Adidas and C&A. These brands have announced many times that they support improvement in Cambodia’s garment sector. However, much still needs to happen. William Conklin, Cambodia Director of the Solidarity Center, a US-based worker’s rights NGO, vehemently remarks that fashion brands are partly to blame for poor wages in factories producing their clothing. “What we see now is that brands squeeze factories and therefore workers,” he said, adding, “If you a pay a low price per piece of clothing, that dribbles down to the workers. Workers are now being seen as disposable. That attitude really needs to change.”