Cambodia's Garment Factories
Cambodia Past and Present, Part Two of a Two-Part Series
I sat in my chair with my cigarette in my left hand as junior reporter Junko paced back and forth in my office. She was convinced that I had not done the necessary research before my recent visit to a few Cambodian garment factories.
settled my grit in my tray and assured her that a good
newsman is always properly informed before taking on an
assignment. She raised her voice and countered by saying
that intimate knowledge of the variations in the stitch
patterns between Vietnamese and Chinese hostess girls'
dresses does not constitute research. I nodded, more to
appease rather than to acknowledge.
She wondered if I was aware of the high
working hours that Cambodian factories are known for. I
pulled a copy of the Cambodia Daily out of my bag
and tossed it onto my desk:
Garment Union Threatens to Strike
for Shorter Work Week
The Free Trade Union of the Workers
of the Kingdom of Cambodia, - in a letter to the
Ministry of Social Affairs - asked that the week be
reduced from 48 to 44 hours...
What then about the low wages? I tapped
the page for emphasis:
The workers were eventually granted
a raise from $40 per month to $45 per month...
It was no use as she wasn't listening.
But I'd get my day in court. She then began to wave her
Angkor Wat souvenir beach towel overhead. I calmly
folded my hands in my lap and let my cigarette idle in
my tray, waiting for her to finish.
"They cut them in this
size," says Wilson Chen, manager of the
Singaporean-owned Suntex garment factory, holding up the
front panel of a lady's t-shirt. "This will be the
back panel," he continues, selecting a different
piece of fabric off the cutting table. "Now the
sleeves." He grabs yet another piece. "So
after being cut into the proper components, the pieces
are bundled together to later be sent to sewing."
Cutting the fabric into pieces and
bundling them as a set is the first step in the creation
of a standard $19.50 Banana Republic t-shirt. This
process is not unique to Wilson's 65,000 m2
factory. It is repeated tens of thousands of times daily
in the dozens of garment factories that line Phnom
Penh's Veng Sreng Street.
Wilson refers to "them" he is talking about
his workers. In his factory two shifts of 2,600 solely
Cambodian workers cut, sew, wash, press, and package
garments for a literal hall of fame of American clothing
companies - Gap, Warner Brothers, Old Navy, and the
aforementioned Banana Republic.
One hundred percent of Suntex's output
makes the one-month journey by boat to the United
States. What products make this trek, however, varies by
season. "It depends on what orders we take from
them," Wilson says. "We do shorts. We do
jackets. Now we are doing the spring/summer. From May we
will do the winter."
Wilson's factory is not responsible for
all of the clothing company's line, just selected bits.
It is up to the bosses in the States to determine what
is made and when. "They [the clothing company] will
place the order and let us know what they need. Then we
will work it out. We'll make samples and counter-samples
for them to approve. When they do approve them, we start
In the sewing section we stand at the
front of one of his forty lines of sewing stations. Each
line has two sides. The surgical masked-workers swap
pieces back and forth as the machines rapidly motor
along resembling a series of hummingbirds hovering above
two parallel fences. "They start from the back of
the line," he points out, "and when they reach
the front, it is a complete garment. So everything moves
from the back on forward." He grabs a fresh
flower-patterned tank top off the line.
Materials come from Malaysia, Taiwan,
and Singapore. Because of the intense competition in the
Asia region, prices for the raw materials don't
fluctuate. But, as Wilson is quick to note, "Right
now we can get some real cheap yarn from China."
"The white fabric is
printed," he holds up the garment to give it a
quick quality check. "This is the latest in photo
printing. No dye is used. One piece of paper transfers
the image with the aid of heat." Quality control
checks aren't only done for the end product though. It
is a continual process throughout the garment's
we have got the QC to check the fabric to make sure the
cutting is ok. Then in the sewing we have got the line
QC to make sure the quality is good before being sent to
finishing. In the finishing also, once the garment is
complete, they will check the appearance. Then after
folding, the look must be good to attract people to
buy." While quality is vital to the Wilson and his
management staff, speed is the worker's bread and
"We give them [workers] a target.
For one day, say the average is about 1000 pieces in 8
hours per line. If they do better than that they get a
small bonus. It is an incentive, extra over the
basic." The basic amounts to $50 a month at Suntex.
This might not seem like much and it isn't. But it is
better than the $45 minimum wage. Plus with the bonus,
the average Suntex worker takes home between $70 and
The garment industry's 150,000 workers
account for $600 million worth of annual exports for
Cambodia and 90% of the country's export earnings. This
being such a large business, how is the competition for
"Workers are abundant."
Wilson assures. "It is no problem to get workers.
Any time we put an advertisement outside we can get 100
or 200 workers for an interview."
But how can a worker stare at a $19.50
price tag affixed to a single article of clothing
knowing that it represents a third of his full month's
salary? The answer is blunt and simple. Poverty.
Given that the $45 minimum wage, as
demanded by The Free Trade Union of Workers (Cambodia's
largest garment worker union), is twice that of a school
teacher or doctor in Cambodia, a garment worker job is
not a mere stitch in time. Outside of a few selected
government positions, prostitution and drug peddling are
the only other occupations in Cambodia that pay more
than assembling the pieces of a t-shirt. No experience
is necessary either.
"For our site here," Wilson
says, moving to the finishing section, "we have a
training center. If they don't have experience, no
problem. We will train them for two weeks and after that
they will stand in the line for the actual work."
The work in Cambodia's factories is
notorious for its excessive hours and dangerous working
conditions. But, as Wilson laments (though will freely
discuss), his factory adheres to worker safety and
rights standards even though it is his biggest problem.
biggest problem, especially now with the Gap, is we need
to comply with human rights. They don't let us work too
much overtime. And Sunday must be off. We have to
comply. But at times when orders are rushing, it is
quite difficult to comply on our part, but we still we
How about regulation?
"The Gap will send people here to
make sure that the workers don't work excessive
overtime. That is why we started with the two shifts.
That way, one leaves and the other goes. Formerly it was
just one shift."
Any other problems?
"Most days we have no problems.
But after the payday, we used to have some problems with
the workers returning to work. They get paid once a
month. So now we usually pay them on Saturday. So Monday
they come back to work."
As far as the workers' conditions are
concerned, cleanliness is not a problem at Suntex. While
the sewing and cutting machines rattle on and various
sucking sounds can often be heard going on in the
network of cables overhead, the three-year old factory
is relatively quiet and of a cool temperature. It's
clean too. On the grounds outside, in the worker break
areas, and the inside of the factory itself is spotless.
Since this factory (and many of the others on Veng Sreng
Street) supplies products to American companies and, as
a result, is required to adhere to the standards Wilson
mentioned, it doesn't resemble a sweatshop that Cambodia
has a reputation for. That is not to say that sweatshops
don't exist in Cambodia anymore. Nor is it to say that
Suntex is even typical among those that supply products
for American companies.
Tommy Textile, just down the street
from Suntex, greets visitors by flying one Cambodian and
two American flags at its gate. Tommy's 1,300 workers
make 78,000 towels (and only towels) a day in three
shifts for Walmart and K-Mart. While it too is very
clean, Tommy's environment is a little more harsh and
much more chaotic. Bed sheet-sized towels unfurl from
machines that rise to the size of grain elevators.
Pneumatic dye presses hiss, whir, and clank. Rows of
large cylindrical textile machines unspool hundreds of
long parallel streams of yarn. Together, these create
background noise akin to about a dozen live jackhammers
falling into metal bathtub.
Back to the finishing section, Wilson
continues, "Finishing involves pressing, folding,
and packing into a bag. So after that they will check
everything, pack everything and they will be put into
cartons, ready for export. We have some nice floral
dresses here. This is the skirt."
"The unions have representatives
loitering around outside scaring the workers and when
that happens the factory stays empty. It is not the
workers that start the strikes." He pauses as we
check the washers and dryers necessary for the
production of some garments for the Gap and Old Navy and
then adds, "The workers are basically happy
[without the unions]. They are able to send money to
their families each month. Down the street June Textiles
last year had a 10-day strike."
The strike he is referring to was in
June of last year. An estimated 20,000 Cambodian garment
workers, including workers from June Textiles, went out
on strike. Several issues were in dispute at that time,
but the most prominent demand was an increase to the
minimum wage. This strike is what led to the raise to
Wilson grabs a t-shirt out of the
dryer. "First the washing and then the drying. So
you get the soft feel. Not course or hard." He
holds it outward.
Life in Cambodia might be course and
hard. But the garments, they are indeed soft.
Junko held her Angkor Wat
towel in her hands.
"So this is from Tommy Textile
then?" she asked.
I retrieved a fresh smoke from my pack
and set my lighter in motion. "Yep, but that's all
you get," I cautioned and puffed. "Souvenirs
from my subsequent trip to East Timor were few and far
Coming Next Week: a return to East
Timor. Note: All the pictures used for this article were
taken at the Tommy Textile factory. The Cambodia Daily
is available for free at Cafe des Pres in Hiroo, Tokyo.