All in a Day’s Work

More than 400,000 women work in the garment industry in Cambodia, making clothes for a long list of international clothing brands. Factories and brands occasionally make headlines for substandard working conditions, but the struggle for workers here is constant. Below is a snapshot of events we witnessed in two weeks alone.

November 9, 2012 – An unexpected passing

31-year-old garment worker Noun Socheata was just over 9 months pregnant when she checked into hospital to give birth to her second child. Around 11:30 at night, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Not long after, something went seriously wrong.

The only thing is – no one really seems to know what. The doctor refused to let the family in to see her, revealing only that Socheata’s blood had started to pour out ‘like water.’ At 3:30 in the morning, Socheata’s husband Sami (below), was told that his wife was dead. In an unexpected instant, he was left to raise his new son, Oudom, alone.

Socheata’s mother Yana believes that Socheata didn’t get proper treatment because she was so poor. Through tears she told us that – even at 9 months pregnant – Socheata was working overtime 7 days a week at her factory.

For its part, factory management told Socheata that she shouldn’t keep working at such a late stage in her pregnancy. They said she could have 3-months leave, but they did so without offering the 50% salary to which she is entitled by law. Socheata could take time off – but she wouldn’t make a cent for it.

Instead, Socheata took on even more hours and worked herself even harder. She knew she would soon be supporting her new baby with no income.

Workers from Socheata’s factory explained a bit more. They said they each make around $70 dollars a month, getting paid a certain amount per item of clothing they produce. In her 4 years at the factory, that was the standard salary for Socheata. But in the last few months, Socheata was making nearly $140 dollars a month – ‘extremely rare,’ the women said. A worker would only be able to make that much money if she were working herself to the bone, relentlessly pumping out item after item. At 9 months pregnant, this is how Socheata spent the last days of her life.

It’s difficult to know for certain whether or not Socheata’s overwork was a major factor in her death, especially because the hospital refuses to explain. With little information to go on, the family is left to mourn her death in a state of shock and confusion (Socheata’s mother and husband at the mourning ceremony, below).

What’s clear is that the women at Socheata’s factory are working in fear. Despite working at the factory for 4 or 5 years, they said they are all on repeating 3-month contracts – a common, yet, illegal move by factory owners that robs workers of benefits (like maternity leave) and keeps them in constant fear of losing their job if they complain. We asked the workers if we could take their photo, and that was all it took for them to scatter. “We’ll get fired if they know we talked to you,” they said – and most were gone in an instant.

It’s easy to see why they don’t have courage to speak up. Tucked away in the provinces where so many are living in poverty, few have the knowledge or means to do anything if they’re taken advantage of. Socheata’s family told us they felt powerless, unwilling to start a fight they feel they can’t win.

November 14-15, 2012 – Mass-fainting

On Wednesday, November 14, workers at Vattanac Industrial Park II started to feel sick from a powerful odor they said smelled “like medicine.” They rushed to get outside for air, but the smell had already gotten the best of them. More than 100 lost consciousness, and at least 60 went to hospital.

Despite it all, workers were called back for business as usual the following morning. Not long after they arrived, more than 100 workers dropped again. They were taken to a number of different hospitals and clinics to recover.

After visiting some workers in their homes (Cheam Phalla recovering, above) we went to Anlong Romeit health clinic where 70 workers were being treated – workers from factories that have recently shipped to Target and Kohl’s department stores, as well as the brands Hanes and Abercrombie and Fitch.

By late evening, only one worker was left at the clinic. She still couldn’t muster the strength to stand.

In the dark of night, when even the doctors had packed up and gone home, Ratha and her mother (above) were left to deal with the day’s aftermath, alone.

Friday, November 16, 2012 – Union busting

Nex-T is a relatively new factory in Phnom Penh, but it hasn’t taken long for the workers there to get angry. They say they’re all on short-term contracts, they feel forced to work 4 hours of overtime a day, and women are fainting there regularly. When a group of workers tried to set up an independent union, 2 of them were fired, including 24-year-old Or Chanty (below).

Chanty said that before he was fired, the factory officials tried to shut him down with bribes. “I won’t sell myself,” he said. “Workers are suffering and I have to fight.”

On November 13, the workers at Nex-T (a supplier of Target department store, among others) started to strike (below). Their demands were pretty simple. Things like: let us choose if we want to work overtime; please get rid of short-term contracts that rob us of what we’re entitled; and don’t fire us for exercising our legal right to a union.

But on the 3rd day of the strike, things got pretty messy. Armed with clubs and shields, the cops intervened, leaving behind a pretty clear message.

Kong Srey Mom is a 20-year-old worker who joined the protest. Police grabbed her with so much force that she eventually lost consciousness.

30-year-old worker Kong Limlun was hit in the face with a club.

As the women were treated in a nearby clinic, Chanty had to collect contributions from other workers to cover their medical costs.

Outside the factory gates, 25-year-old Kim Horn (below) said that workers simply want their rights respected. “If we don’t stand up and fight,” she said, “the factory will continue to treat us like this.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 – Yet another mass-fainting

Just a few months ago, Poun Sokty was a healthy 20-year-old. She worked on a farm with her husband in Kampong Thom Province.

But Sokty started hearing stories that her friends were making lots of money at the garment factories in the capital, Phnom Penh. Leaving behind her husband and 1-year old son, Sokty made the move.

For the last 3 months, Sokty has been putting the glue on Puma sneakers. She says the glue smells awful, but after working with it 10 hours a day – she just got used to it.

Sokty says she can put up with the smell, but since she started working at the factory she’s been getting weaker and weaker. On Wednesday, Sokty fainted during her shift. Nearly 40 other women fainted the next day.

When we met her, Sokty had been stuck in the health clinic for two days, lying on the ground in the corner strapped to an IV (above). She couldn’t even stand up on her own (below).

Without a cellphone to call her husband (she can’t afford one), Sokty was recovering alone until her Aunt and Uncle (above) arrived on her second day in the clinic. Her husband was eventually given the news, and was making his way from Kampong Thom to see her.

Sokty said she didn’t know when she’d have the strength to leave the clinic, but when she does, it’s back to the Puma factory line.

Thursday, November 22, 2012 – Truck crash

A truckload of workers slammed into a ditch in Svay Rieng Province during their commute to the factory. At least 15 workers are in serious condition, and more than 40 are injured.

Cambodian roads are notoriously hectic, but the workers’ commute is particularly precarious. As many as 80 workers jam into the back of open flatbed trucks with nothing but a metal cage for balance (one example, below).


The above stories took place over 2 weeks alone. Certainly, there were reports of other strikes and faintings during this period, and it’s hard to say how many stories – like Socheata’s passing – may have quietly come and gone.

Brands may continue to profit from doing business here, but at what cost to Cambodian workers and their families?

As we saw these past weeks, it’s not just the workers who are affected by the consequences of their poor working conditions. It’s also the husbands, mothers, brothers and sisters who rush to the hospitals and wait patiently by bedsides for their loved ones to recover. How many more women have to end up in hospital before someone decides this is wrong?

Reported by Heather Stilwell and Oudom Tat. Photos by Heather Stilwell.

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