By Christian Winch
Cambodia is relatively new to clothing and textiles production but it is already being plagued with strikes, protests and deaths. The beginning of the year was an ugly start for Cambodia and its clothing production industry after security forces opened fire on striking workers in the capital city of Phnom Penh which resulted in the deaths of five protesters and injured dozens more.
Pay for workers in Cambodia is one of the lowest in the world and is set by co-operation through the national government and businesses which operate within the country such as H&M and Gap.
These are two of the largest companies who import from Cambodia and the environment they source their clothing from is in dire need of improvement. Reports of mass faintings have surfaced as up to 4,000 of the estimated 600,000 workers have collapsed due to hunger, long working hours, poor ventilation and heat, and the chemicals used to treat fabric.
Asia Floor Wage, a New Delhi-based international alliance of trade unions and labour rights activists working through the Clean Clothes Campaign, have been purposeful in their pursuit of higher minimum wages across garment-producing countries in Asia, and especially in Cambodia.
The alliance estimates that a living wage for Cambodian garment workers should be AUD$283 per month, $200 more than they are being paid and $120 more than the workers themselves are asking. The garment industry is the country’s largest export business, employing about 600,000 mostly female workers in about 800 clothing and shoe factories.
The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) said it was “deeply disturbed” by the continuing violence in Cambodia. The agency also reiterated its earlier call for the government to launch an independent inquiry into the repression of strikers.
Over the past year garment exportation in Cambodia topped $5 billion annually, the highest profits recorded yet. The industry exists and flourishes to a certain degree largely due to worker wages being some of the lowest in the world. Unfortunately, this forces their government to turn a blind eye to the exploitative conditions faced by its workers.
Cambodia is a peaceful country that is 95% Buddhist, if the words of the Dalai Lama could resonate with the clothing manufacturers, it can all be turned around, “our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can’t help them at least don't hurt them”.