Dreams to dust in Phnom Penh

Heit Ladi, 20, with grandmother and sister, 17, also a garment worker. --STPHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Heit Ladi, 20, with grandmother and sister, 17, also a garment worker. --STPHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Picture shows an ID card of one of the workers. --STPHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Picture shows an ID card of one of the workers. --STPHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

Phnom Penh’s roads are a study in contrasts.

In the city centre with its boulevards and well tended grassy verges, the gleaming Lexus and Range Rover SUVs that liberally dot the traffic don’t seem out of place.

But on the edges the roads themselves get edgier, and the expensive SUVs stick out against ramshackle neighbourhoods smothered in dust kicked up by motley traffic on broken potholed streets.

One such street, Veng Sreng, offers yet another contrast. Just off it are scores of garment factories supplying clothes to buyers whose brands dot the upscale retail districts of London, Paris, Hongkong and Singapore – brands like H&M, Nike, Gap, Puma, Columbia.  

Here by the factories is also where the garment workers live, often five to seven crammed into small rooms arranged in rows, like a barracks. In one such place the workers who were left after the rioting on the street a few metres away on Jan 3, told me they paid US$40 (S$50.60) per room, and spent another US$12-15 for electricity and water.

Several said they sent money to their families. Cambodia’s up to half a million garment workers support up to 2 million people – in a country of around 15 million.

Just a few kilometres away at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, the capital’s biggest, the wards overflow with patients, forcing some to sleep in the corridors. There, I met three workers who had been injured on Jan 3.

Two were young men, 20 and 21, who had taken bullets through their abdomens – fired by troops sent to suppress their strike.

Their crime? Demanding a higher wage than the US$100 the government had offered for this year – up over last year’s minimum wage by US$20 a month.

One was sedated and sleeping, the other, breathing through tubes, could not really speak.

Cambodia’s garment industry has grown spectacularly in recent years, as rising wages in China have driven manufacturers to seek lower-wage countries. Cambodia is a favourite.

It helps that Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in south east Asia. And more than two decades after the end of vicious regional and civil wars, it remains poor, with young people clamouring for work.

Cambodia is also ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Last year in Transparency International’s annual corruption index, Cambodia was perceived by investors as the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia – sinking below Laos and Myanmar.  

Cambodia’s garment industry is dominated by foreigner owners. “Almost 70 per cent of the garment factories are owned by some form of Chinese from China, Taiwan, Hongkong, Malaysia or Singapore,” reckons Jill Tucker, head of the International Labour Organisation’s “Better Factories Cambodia” (BFC) programme.

“Koreans account for around 20 per cent, and the rest is a mix. This really sets Cambodia part from, say, Bangladesh (another major garment supplier to the world) where virtually all the factories are owned by Bangladeshis.”

Whether local or foreign ownership makes a difference is arguable. While the grim sweatshops of the industrial revolution may be largely a thing of the past, conditions in the garment sector - and not just in Cambodia - are not known to be salubrious.

To be fair, BFC monitors and evaluates 500 factories in Cambodia for their working conditions, and the industry has had a reasonably good reputation. However there has been some slippage lately, and this year BFC will be “naming and shaming” factories that do not measure up to decent working conditions.

The fight on Veng Sreng had at its heart the issue of a decent living wage. But the conflation of other issues made it more significant than the average labour strike.

For one thing, the garment worker unions are a battleground for strongman premier Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (PPP), and opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP’s ongoing street protests against the CPP, which they accuse of cheating its way to a narrow win in the July 2013 election, merged with the garment workers’ strike.

That there is a groundswell of disenchantment with Mr Hun Sen who has run the country for 28 years, was reflected by a swing against the party in the election.

The famously blunt and truculent premier, now 61, who in his teens was a Khmer Rouge fighter, and who has placed his three sons in positions of influence and surrounded himself with loyalists, is unlikely to cave in to street pressure.

Crack units of the army were mobilised against the strikers and CNRP protesters in the first week of January, with one of his ministers calling the protests a “rebellion.”

It was thus a question of political survival. But Cambodia also needs the garment industry, so there is pressure to keep wages down.

At the same time, it must figure out how to meet the expectations and ambitions of young Cambodians for a better life.

The crackdown has triggered global outrage and dismay. Global brand names do not like to see footage of the young workers that produce their US$40 or more shirts shot on the dusty streets of an impoverished Asian nation plastered across the TV screens of their customers.

At the hospital, I also met 20-year-old Heit Ladi, who dropped out of school after the fourth grade, and came to Phnom Penh from her village in Kandal province to work as a maid in a wealthy family’s house before landing the garment factory job for US$80 a month a year ago.

Life was hard enough as it is - but positive as long as she could live in the big city and paint her fingernails bright orange. And with the resilience and fighting spirit honed in the hardscrabble life of a poor Cambodian village, she had some hope for the future.

But the two bullets through her left upper arm, now fixed with rods and screws, have for the moment put paid to her dreams.