by Meghan Lewis
Two newspaper headlines caught my eye recently. The first, published in a British newspaper, brought stark news to fashion followers. Due to an increase in VAT (value added tax) and cotton prices, “cheap fashion could soon be a thing of the past.” The second article, published the same day in Cambodia, documented the enduring struggle of Cambodian women who manufacture clothes for foreign retailers. Much of the clothing available at High Street shops such as Gap, Levi Strauss, and Marks & Spencer is made in Cambodia.
In September, Cambodian garment workers took to the streets in protest, demanding a living wage of $93 per month. The current meager wage of $61 per month is scarcely enough to cover health and living expenses for themselves and their dependents. Cambodian garment workers are among the lowest paid in the world, second only to Bangladesh.
In order to learn more about life for Cambodian garment workers, I went to Meanchay in Phnom Penh, where many of the factories are based. There I met Kang Sreynin. She is 28 years old and lives in a rented room with her four siblings. Fearing repercussions if identified, Sreynin chose to have a pseudonym and declined to have her photo published. But she does want to share her story. Like many, Sreynin has recently been fired from her job as a result of the strikes. She is being sued by her former employers and is accused of inciting unrest. She explains, "If you meet with the union, if you show interest in workers’ rights, the message from the factory is very clear - you will not be there for long. They will look for a reason to fire you and you will be gone."Sreynin never wanted to work in a factory, but had limited education and had to find a way to support her parents and siblings. "My life is very difficult," Sreynin shared with me. "There is no job security and our wages change every month depending on which garments we are making. Some months I get so little money that it is not enough to live on. We have to hit targets that are unrealistic and if we fail to hit them, they will fire us. When I made a mistake on one shirt, they deducted the price of twelve shirts from my salary." Sreynin has a dream of starting her own business one day and providing her brothers and sisters with a good education so that they have better prospects than she has had.
Ly Pheareak from Worker’s Information Centre (WIC) says that Sreynin‘s case is by no means unique and that the low wages are not the only problem. “Women are under huge pressure to hit unreachable targets. Because of this they only take short breaks - they do not drink water because they cannot afford to lose time by going to the toilet. Although workers have rights to annual leave and maternity leave, it is very inaccessible. Often you can only take leave when business is quiet, not when you are feeling ill or having family problems.” Pheareak explained that factories are often dangerous environments. “The toilets are dirty - there is no soap or water to flush the toilet. It is very hot inside, and workers are not supplied with masks so they often develop breathing problems. If an inspector or visitor comes,” Pheareak added, “they hide all these problems, but every day they are there.”
In the Let’s Clean Up Fashion report in 2009, both Marks & Spencer and Gap showed a commitment to improving conditions with pilot programs addressing inadequate worker wages. Levi Strauss, however, denied all responsibility for garment workers wages with the following statement, “Markets set wage rates. Where wages fail to keep workers above the poverty line, governments should set minimum wages consistent with the cost of living.”The garment industry’s current way of trading is rife with problems. There are many parties that need to take responsibility. As consumers, we all have a social responsibility to ensure that our actions do not directly or indirectly cause the distress of others. With low labor costs and high retail prices, brand owners and retailers often make a huge profit at the expense of others. The time has come for a fairer distribution of profit to ensure that employees’ well-being is a higher priority than profit.
We need to raise awareness among consumers. When we buy products, we are supporting the way they are manufactured and sold. As consumers we should question prices that are unrealistically low and be prepared to pay a realistic price. Furthermore, we should demand greater transparency from retailers and make it clear that anything unethical and less than a living wage for workers is unacceptable.Western media has been reporting for decades the bad conditions in which clothes are made, and yet consumers continue to turn a blind eye. Pheareak wants “the consumers to look back to the condition of the worker’s life. Can they afford to survive or not?” Yet, she warns, “it is not only the consumer. Often consumers pay a high cost for products in the hope that this will contribute to improve worker’s wages. Instead the brand owner makes a big profit. The brand owner must share that profit down to workers and ensure that we all have enough to survive.”
Alan Flux from Coral Seed, a small UK-based fair-trade partnership, has been working with producers in Cambodia for the past two years. “People have a choice,” he says. “If they want to buy a sweatshop pair of jeans, they can do that. But if people wish to help secure the livelihoods of disadvantaged producers in the developing world, they can do that. The choice is theirs. Fairly traded clothes are always going to be more expensive because these partnerships ensure that producers are paid fairly for their labor.”In the last decade cheap clothes, such as $3 T- shirts and $6 jeans, have fuelled consumerism. Shoppers may think these prices are too good to be true, and they would be right. When we pay $3 for a T-shirt, are we are covering the true cost - including fabric, labor, transport, packaging, advertising, and VAT? Of course not. The whole system is designed so that the true cost is being paid by people who can least afford it.
Sadly, there is a missing link between the two newspaper articles from countries 10,000 kilometers apart. While the British newspaper focuses on the rising price of clothes in the UK, it does not tell the story of Sreynin, or the thousands of women with similar stories. In fact, it does not even mention workers’ wages or conditions, implying that this rise in prices will not reflect a living wage for those who work so hard. Sadly, the garment industry is not a game without losers. Out of sight from gleeful bargain hunters are the true fashion victims – garment workers who are suffering and paying the price for the financial gain and greed of others.
About the author:
Meghan Lewis is the Policy, Advocacy and Communications Officer for the Khmer HIV/ AIDS NGO Alliance and works to reduce discrimination against marginalized groups in the response to HIV and AIDS. She has been a key actor in the formation of Cambodia’s first LGBT group, Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK). Throughout her personal, academic and professional life, her primary passion has been to reduce the inequalities that exist in so many areas of society and work towards a future where opportunities are accessible to all people regardless of ethnicity, economics, gender or sexuality.