Profiting from Poverty: H&M in Cambodia

Recently, the Swedish TV program “Kalla Fakta,’ aired an investigative documentary about factory conditions for H&M garment workers in Cambodia. The program focused on conditions at M&V International, a factory that employs around 5,000 workers in Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang Province.

Some said the documentary ‘unearthed’ a scandal – particularly the  ‘starvation wages’ workers earn to make the ‘trendy’ attire. While it’s true that the conditions depicted were inexcusable and repulsive, H&M has long been a major buyer from this factory and it’s impossible to believe that much of it came as news to them. Still, their Head of Sustainability, Helena Helmersson, wasn’t embarrassed to say in the program that H&M needs to “learn more about different countries to know how bad the conditions are.”

Screen shot of Helena Helmersson from H&M’s video on ‘Sustainable Fashion’ (above).

This seems like something H&M probably should have done before they started doing business in Cambodia. Maybe by talking to more workers. In fact, H&M was invited to a forum full of Cambodian garment workers this year – workers who would be more than happy to give H&M a crash course on the conditions under which the clothes are produced – and H&M refused to come. The only thing more offensive than the treatment of these women, are the excuses and digressions H&M uses to justify it – all the way from a plush couch in Sweden.

When questioned about wages, Helmersson responded that, “wage is integral to H&M’s values and business concept.” On this point, we would have to agree. At 61 USD’s a month, this pathetic amount of income keeps workers exactly where factory and business owners want them – starving and desperate for endless hours of overtime work.

Coincidentally, we were at M&V factory when the Swedish program aired, speaking with workers at the factory. Here’s another look at the H&M supplier and the women they employ.


The factory opens for business at 7am, but the day starts much earlier for most workers. First, they’re herded like cattle from their homes on the back of flatbed trucks, clinging to metal bars above their heads simply to keep from falling over. The small trucks hold 40 workers, and the biggest ones hold 80. The women pay for this privilege using their transportation ‘bonus.’

Sure, this practice isn’t exclusive to M&V factory. It’s used to transport workers across the country. But more than a few women were killed in Cambodia during factory commutes this year. More than 100 were injured.


This is Thida (above). She’s been working at M&V for over 2 years, which means she’s legally entitled to a long-term contract that would give her seniority benefits and job security. Thida could really use these benefits – again, benefits to which she’s entitled by law  – because Thida is 6 months pregnant.

Instead, Thida says she’s employed perpetually on a short-term contract, and says she’ll continue to work 30 days a month until she’s nearly ready to deliver her baby. Not taking any time to rest is probably not the best idea for a pregnant 21 year old, but Thida needs to work everyday to up her measly salary.

2 years is the cutoff point where any worker must be considered long-term by law. Still, most of the workers at M&V say they are on short-term contracts. Many have worked at the factory for years, but they’re tricked into believing that they aren’t actually long-term employees because, as workers told us, management fires them every year for a about a week, then rehires them and starts them on a fresh new round of exploitation. It saves factories the cost of paying out seniority benefits and keeps workers in constant fear of losing their jobs.

Earlier this year, we asked H&M spokesperson Anna Eriksson about the use of short-term contracts (also known as fixed-duration contracts) in their factories. She said it was an industry problem, not something H&M had the power to change on its own. “The numbers of fixed duration contracts have increased during the last years,” she said, “and this is not a trend we support.”

It should go without saying that H&M wouldn’t ‘support’ systematic crime in their factories. The question is, what are they doing to stop it? Weak statements have done little to help women like Thida.


Last August, nearly 300 women fainted at the factory in just two days. An H&M report concluded that only one or two women really fainted – the rest of the women were suffering from mass hysteria. Don’t worry, they said. Workers aren’t fainting – they’re simply falling down because they’re scared and weak.

This is Chenda (above). Chenda was the third woman to faint last August, essentially making her the first woman that H&M labeled psychologically ill according to the report. Factory management relayed the message and told Chenda that her act of so-called fainting was in her head.

Chenda says she and the other women are angry about the unhealthy working conditions, but she has no choice but to continue working there. She alone supports herself and her single mother (below), and she’s had to borrow money at high interest and hand over family farm land as collateral.

It’s true that Chenda can make more than minimum wage if she works overtime. She can also get a $10 bonus for perfect monthly attendance. But the very existence of an attendance bonus has been criticized as yet another method to push financially desperate workers to work beyond their physical means. $10 is quite a chunk of cash when you’re making less than 2$ a day, and many workers will fight through exhaustion just to get it.

But Chenda is sick and doesn’t have enough money to seek proper treatment. Last month, she was so weak that she had to take 2 days off from work. She lost her attendance bonus, so she and her mother survived the month on just over a dollar a day each – hardly enough for Chenda to regain the strength she needs for the physical demands of her job.

It’s a similar story for so many Cambodian workers: they’re overworked, underpaid, malnourished, and – no surprise – they’re weak.

One year after the first mass fainting at M&V, the factory still hasn’t solved much. Workers told us last week that 3-4 women faint a day. It’s worth taking a moment to stop and consider the enormity of that statistic. But it doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore. It’s all part of the job.

And in August this year, there was more mass fainting at the factory. Around 30 one day, 20 another.

In response, management offered workers a few days off, and for about 2 weeks, allowed them to come a couple of hours late, and relieved them of their usual 2 hours a day of overtime. Management said it was a test to see if the fainting was caused by overwork.

Not surprisingly, the rest ‘experiment’ didn’t actually work and women continued to faint. The convenient conclusion by management? Excessive working hours can’t be the problem. The women must still be suffering from mental problems, so why not just put them back to work? They reinstated the regular working hours and overtime. Provincial Labor Minister Peou Sathea told us the problem wasn’t so serious – because at least it was less than a few hundred this time. M&Vs Administrative Chief Yin Nak told us that, in future, they will “teach the women to deal with their mental issues.”

Does H&M really not see the need to do more here?

It’s worth suggesting to management that chronic fatigue isn’t solved in a few days, and it could be that excessive hours aren’t the only thing contributing to overwork and exhaustion.

It’s no secret that Cambodian garment workers can barely afford to eat. Most of them spend less than 50 cents a day on lunch, pooling their funds to share small clams, soup, or rice. Not exactly fuel for a 10 hour work day.

And what does that work day look like? 48 year old Phalla (below) works in what the women describe as one of the toughest departments, the laundry unit. She says there are lots of machines running, so it gets stifling hot. Phalla works 10 hour days, most if it on her feet. And like many women at M&V, she says she’s scared to drink the water in the factory (until recently, the water tank didn’t have a cover – and a while back some women found dead rats in it). But the worst part of it all, she says, is the toxic smell that comes off of the clothes in the wash.

On top of all this, most of the women told us that they work on a piece-rate system. They make a certain amount of money for each article of clothing they complete, and are given a certain quota to hit. Women are in constant fear of not hitting this quota. They know their jobs depend on it so they work themselves to the bone. Some of the women told us they’ll even come in early to work – even though they aren’t paid for the extra time – just so they can produce enough articles of clothing to hit the mark.

Sophal is a 24 year old worker we met climbing into a truck for her commute home (she is 7 months pregnant, so the driver mercifully insists she rides in the front seat instead of the flatbed). She says her first request would be for the piece-rate price to be higher, so the women could have a realistic chance at reaching their targets.

Scores of workers echoed her concern. The piece-rate price depends on the article of clothing being made, but overall, the women say it’s frustratingly low. And they’re more than a bit shocked to hear how much one shirt they make actually sells for in an H&M store.


H&M’s Helmersson visited the factory in October and wrote that the biggest problem at the factory was a lack of dialogue between workers and management, and between unions and employers. But in the documentary she was happy to report that workers in Cambodia have “reached the stage where they are making their voices heard… 75% of factories are represented by unions, and they can make their voices heard.”

But of the hundreds of unions that exist in Cambodia, less than a handful are recognized as being independent. Most are said to have ties to the government, or have been set up by factory owners to serve their own interests.

It’s true that some of the workers at M&V factory are represented by a union. Actually there are 4 competing unions there. But if you speak with workers, many simply know they pay a union membership fee, and that’s where it ends. Some don’t even know which union they belong to, let alone how to make their voices heard through one. Even if the women had a way to speak up, their short-term contracts make them too scared to say anything that could jeopordize their jobs.

H&M’s Eriksson assured me that, “H&M puts a lot of effort and resources in educating the suppliers and workers.”

But remarkably, as little as H&M claims to know about Cambodian factories, the majority of workers at M&V have no idea H&M even exists. For days we spoke to workers outside the factory and asked if they knew who they made clothes for. Few could answer. They had no idea that H&M even plays a role in their employment. It seems conveniently misleading for H&M to say that workers have a voice, when that voice still doesn’t know it could be yelling to H&M.


In the documentary, Helmersson was asked why H&M refuses to pay a ‘living wage,’ – ie. a salary that would actually allow these women to live with dignity and to support the basic needs of themselves and their families. She responded by saying that H&M couldn’t pay a living wage until there was an ‘industry standard,’ but stressed that they were “on the leading edge of the industry,” when it came to social responsibility.

Eriksson told me that, “…naturally we believe that the minimum wages should be enough to live on,” and that, “wages in our supply chain are a key focus in our sustainability work.” But, she continued, “for a buyer such as H&M to participate in setting pay levels or to make demands of individual suppliers is not a lasting solution.”

The contradictions and excuses delivered by H&M show at very least, a considerable amount of apathy. At worst, it’s intentional exploitation of dangerous industry practices that allow women to be a quiet casualty of the business. If H&M truly were at the leading edge of the industry, as they say – then they could lead the way and start paying a living wage –  instead of refusing to attend meetings purely designed to discuss a national living wage, as they did earlier this year.

If they had been at that meeting they would’ve heard a panel of international judges who concluded that brands like H&M need to go beyond “standards” and “commit to the application of a mandatory living wage at all levels and sectors of the supply chain.”

In the last three-month quarter, H&M announced that it brought in $549 million in profit. They failed to mention that thousands of Cambodian workers helped them do it, and that these women can barely afford to live.

Reported by Heather Stilwell with Oudom Tat for the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media.

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