Behind The Scenes in a Cambodian Sweatshop


2004-03-29
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Paid barely subsistence wages and frequently bullied into working at evenings and weekends, workers in a Cambodian textile factory have barely enough money to live on and scant means of fighting for their rights, an in-depth interview by RFA's Vietnamese service has revealed.

Many hundreds of thousands of workers-the majority of whom are women-are employed in Cambodia's textile industry, which generates an annual revenue of more than one billion U.S. dollars. Among them is a small minority of Vietnamese women, one of whom told RFA reporter Ly Dinh Phat that she worked in a factory run in the capital Phnom Penh.

"The owners are Chinese, but the people in management are Cambodian," the woman, who is in her early twenties, told RFA. She described an atmosphere in which mistrust between Vietnamese and Cambodians left over from the war years still seemed to linger, but where the power of the Chinese owners was offset by the fact that the Cambodian managers would have government backing in any dispute.

"For an average eight-hour day I earn 50 dollars [a month]," the woman said, adding that there were no public holidays or sick leave. "If we took a day off for being sick, we would not get paid... If we have a rush deadline to meet, we would also have to work on Sundays. In those cases, we are paid double," she said.

She said different factories had different requirements for overtime, with some requiring two additional hours so the workday would end at 6 p.m., and some workers required to stay until 8 or 9 p.m.

"Nobody is forced to work overtime," she said. "It's just that sometime the supervisors tell us to put in extra time in an impolite, menacing way." Overtime pay was theoretically time-and-a-half, but in practice this had little effect on their overall take-home pay, she said.

When asked if workers at her factory ever tried to stand up for their rights, she said a trade union would sometimes get involved in outright cases of intimidation. "In those incidents, we would report to our trade union, which would get involved to defend our rights. If they failed to resolve any dispute, they would resort to demonstrations," she said.

But she also described an atmosphere in which the workers were kept under constant pressure and with too many financial worries and too little spare time to cause trouble for management.

"They don't cheat us outright. What they will do, for example, if a worker is supposed to have a raise every three months, she would miss her raise if she received any overtime pay during those three months. So some workers can work for a full year without a raise, because they were paid overtime," the woman said.

Political turmoil in Cambodia was also a deterrent to participating in organized industrial action, she said. "In the past we have organized demonstrations... I did show up but I kept some distance. In other words, I was there but I did not want to directly participate," she said.

"Knowing that the situation is not stable in Cambodia, sometimes one is not clear whether a demonstration's real goal is to fight for the rights of the workers or it may have some other purposes, serving someone else's interests. That makes me hesitate to show my face among the demonstrators."

The woman, who said she had worked at her current factory for more than a year, said no further raises were likely for her. "A salary like mine of 50 dollars a month, including five dollars bonus, had reached the ceiling. I will never get another raise," she said.

"A 50-dollar-a-month wage is very tight," she added. "I could barely make ends meet living alone, let alone providing for my family." When asked if she took on extra work, she said. "No sir, I have no time to do anything else. We are requested to work overtime, and it is usually un-announced. I have wanted to learn the Cambodian language but haven't found any free time. So holding a second job is virtually impossible."#####

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