Interview: Ath Thorn, President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union (C.CAWDU)
Ath Thorn is the president of C.CAWDU, the largest independent garment union in Cambodia. Leader of a 50,000 member’s movement, he describes the daily problems faced by garment workers in the country.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: Who are the 400,000 garment workers in Cambodia?
A: They’re generally young women from poor rural villages who had no choice but leave their family to get money in and around Phnom Penh. Poverty is such state in the countryside that some parents cannot feed their children or send them to school. That’s why they decide to send one, two or three daughters to the factory to financially support the rest of the family.
Once they find a job in a factory, these girls send as much money as possible to their hometown. That’s the deal. But they also have to pay for the rent, for their food, for their clothes and for all their daily expenses. Since they don’t get enough money, they generally borrow money from neighbors, from friends or moneylenders, with interest rates up to 20% per month. That’s why most of their money ends up in other hands: their relatives, their landlords and their creditors.
Q: So how do they manage to find enough money to survive?
A: They have to cut their expenses on every item possible. They share tiny rooms with 3, 4 or 5 people. They eat as little as it is humanly possible. They don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick… And of course, they make a lot of overtime. All these factors explain why we have these mass faintings everywhere in the country.
Q: How much money do they get in the factories?
A: The minimum wage in the garment sector is 61 USD per month – 56 dollars if you’re on probation period. Given the explosion of mass faintings, the government recently added a monthly 5 dollars health allowance. That makes 66 dollars. All the extra money you can get is conditional. For instance, you can get 7 dollars as ‘attendance bonus’ if you don’t miss a single working day. You also get 1 extra dollar per seniority year. And if you work overtime, you get 0,5 dollar per 2 hours.
Q: Is this an improvement compared to the situation 10 years ago?
A: We fought very hard to get there. In 2000, the minimum wage was only 40 dollars. Between 2000 and 2010, we had to organize four general strikes to get better wages. We had no other option. Every strike led to a 5 dollar increase. These protests also led to better bonuses. The attendance bonus increased from 5 to 7 dollars, overtime allowance doubled, seniority bonus was extended to 11 years – and not 4 years as it was previously... But even with these increases, we’re far, very far from a living wage.
Q: What would be a living wage in the sector?
A: Studies conducted in 2009 by the Cambodian Institute of Development Studies showed that minimum wage should be between 93 and 120 USD. And that was in 2009, when inflation was really low compared to 2012. Today, given the price increases, it is impossible to cover basic needs with less than 100 dollars. And I’m just talking about basic needs: food, rental and transportation. Since it is very hard to get increases in the minimum wage, we have to work on better bonuses and allowances to get as close as possible to 100 dollars.
Q: Why does the minimum wage remain so low in Cambodia?
A: Many factors explain this, but the first problem is definitely corruption. Garment is the first industry in Cambodia, and factory owners are extremely powerful. They have a huge influence on decision-makers and can easily bribe officials or unions to keep minimum wages as low as possible.
A second problem is that many other sectors in Cambodia do not have a legal minimum wage. The answer from the authorities is therefore easy: “how could we possibly increase salaries since civil servants do not even have such a legal minimum wage?”
A third reason is the classic ‘competitiveness argument’. Companies and buyers always argue that they can find cheaper labor costs elsewhere, in Bangladesh for instance. That’s a weighty and scary argument that companies use everywhere to make a maximum of profit while leaving workers with the lowest amount of money possible. But if you analyze the situation, you understand that this pressure on the wages is not in their interest.
Q: How so?
A: Because they now realize that leaving workers with such small wages is counter-productive. Workers get sicker and sicker, faintings happen all the time, and this has a cost for companies. Even China had to increase wages in recent years to deal with these problems. Moreover, many people are now thinking twice before joining the garment industry. Given the wages and the bad working conditions, many of them prefer to work in the tourism or services sectors, or choose to migrate. Only non-qualified, poor workers from the countryside then fill these positions. Qualified workers who stay in the industry tend to move from one company to another to find the best conditions and benefits. The low-cost policy pushes qualified workers to move away.
The situation is such in Cambodia that the garment employer’s federation recently announced that 50,000 vacancies remain unfilled. But who wants to work in factories that pay so low wages or don’t provide rental houses? That’s the case near Phnom Penh airport, for instance, where factories remain empty because they don’t provide any facility.
Q: What about the contracts issue? The number of short-term contracts is booming in recent years…
A: Today, I’d say that 60% of workers have a short term contract in the industry. Of course, if you visit the factories monitored by the International Labor Organization, you will probably find more than 80% of unlimited duration contracts. But everybody knows that these factories subcontract large parts of their production in shadow units, where 100% of the workers get short-term contracts. However, even monitored factories try to push workers to sign short-term contracts. That is one of the major issues that we have to face as a union.
Q: What’s the problem with short term contracts?
A: Short-term contracts are the root of major problems for workers. First, every contract you sign brings you back to a ‘zero-year’ seniority, so that you cannot enjoy your right to annual leave, maternity- and seniority allowance.
But short term contracts also act as Damocles swords on workers. “You refuse to make overtime? You contract will not be renewed”. “You want to join a union? Your contract will not be renewed”. “You get pregnant? Your contract will not be renewed”. And so on. Short-term contracts are a weapon of social destruction in Cambodia. They’re meant to maintain a precarious, servile and non-organized workforce in the factories. And thus keep wages low. The law authorizes factories to hire temporary workers for very specific tasks and specific times. It doesn’t allow them to multiply short term contracts. But that’s what’s happening. And that is totally illegal.
Q: Is the situation better in factories supplying big brands like Gap, Levi’s or H&M?
A: I generally say that working conditions are better in these factories thanks to the ILO mechanism I mentioned earlier. But as I told you, these suppliers also work with a large network of subcontractors that remain totally out of sight. Sometimes, the number of workers subcontracted is three, four or five times higher than in the monitored unit. And this is where the worst violations of labor law happen: forced overtime, union busting, no minimum wage...
Brands perfectly know that. They cannot just say “Oh, these are not the factories I deal with, it is not my responsibility.” It is their responsibility. A child would understand that when you order one million shirts to a 1,000-workers factory, it’s impossible to get them in a week.
Q: What can be done against this phenomenon?
A: It’s hard to find and fight these subcontractors, because they can close from one day to another and reopen elsewhere in the country. It’s a hide-and-seek game. And it is of course very difficult for us to enter these units and establish a union because union leaders are immediately dismissed. But it’s easy to show to the brands that the volume of production they get from “their” supplier cannot be manufactured there. When we find such illegal subcontractors, we denounce them to the authorities, to ILO, to the brands… We also take action during the annual garment buyers’ forum. But progress remain slow.
Q: What have been the successes of C.CAWDU so far?
A: Even if working conditions and wages remain bad in the country, they improved over the years. The union movement is stronger today than 10 years ago, and factories have to take this into account. C.CAWDU has now 48.000 members in 63 factories, and the number of affiliates is growing every year. We managed to impose or to defend unlimited contracts in many factories, and we’ve been at the forefront of the general strikes in the country.
But beyond all this, the main victory for me is to see all these workers interested in labor law, willing to learn about their rights and to defend it. A few years ago, many workers didn’t even know that their working conditions were bad. They considered it as normal. Today, they know what is acceptable and what is not. They can make the difference between an independent and a yellow union. And even if they sometimes still fear to join us, they know we’re here.
Q: C.CAWDU also established strong ties with international partners like the Clean Clothes Campaign. What is the added value of these outside actors?
A: The support of international organizations like CCC is decisive in our fight. Our actions complete each other. Unions make pressure on factory owners here, but CCC has access to consumers and big brands. This double action is key to showing which companies can be praised, and which ones can be put on a black list. Nobody loves to be black-listed.
International campaigns improved their strategies over the years. First-generation campaigns led to boycott or reduction of orders in Cambodia. That was not what workers needed here. But today, through their communication and advocacy, these campaigns push brands to make the right choices, to improve their practices. And that’s what we all want here in Cambodia.