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.

I 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.

When 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 producing."

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 creation.

"First, 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 butter.

"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 $80.

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?

"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.

"The 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 have to."

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."

And unions?

"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 $45.

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 between."

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.

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