Interview: Phork Hoeurng, coordinator of the Workers’ Information Center
The Workers’ Information Center (WIC) is a Cambodian grassroots organization working with female garment workers to improve their leadership and living conditions. WIC’s coordinator describes for us the main challenges faced by its members – and the successes so far.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: There are many unions and NGOs working with garment workers in Cambodia. Why set up an organization dealing specifically with women?
A: Women represent 90% of garment workers in Cambodia, but the vast majority of union leaders are men, especially at the federation level. Female workers generally have limited education – most of them only finished primary school and can barely write and read. They therefore think that they can’t speak out to their managers and to their union leader. This is a problem of equity, but also a problem of efficiency since women face specific problems related to their sex.
Q: What kind of problems?
A: Their safety, for instance. Many of them work overtime, until 9 or 10 pm. They have to go back home at night and are often victims of harassment from gangsters. Once they’re home, they still face danger because most of the rental houses don’t have indoor toilets and bathrooms. These are problems that men don’t have to face day after day.
Another specific problem is related to their health conditions. Because of the wages in the sector, most women cannot take care of their health. They work overtime, even in the weekend, and have no time to relax. To get money, they put their health in danger, even when they are pregnant. Hygiene conditions at home and in the factories also have an impact on maternity and pregnancy issues. And these are specific problems that requires women to take leadership.
Q: What does WIC do to act on these issues?
A: We get in touch with local authorities and with the police to improve lighting, security and rapid responses. We inform landlords on safety, hygiene and construction standards. We collaborate with unions to put this issue on the agenda. We even met local gangs!
Health and working condition problems are of course related to the insufficient wages in the sector, and is therefore a priority in our work. But we also provide basic health counseling and natural medicines.
Q: How do you deal with the wage problem?
A: Many workers are exploited because they’re not organized. That’s why we encourage them to create or join unions. We explain what the labor law is, what they can do when they have a problem, how they can organize. We facilitate sessions in the evening, in workers dormitories, and in WIC’s six safe houses located in and around Phnom Penh.
We also organize English classes for women. It’s part of the wage solution because they need to speak English to deal with some factory managers. And English allows them to consider new job opportunities, like working in supermarkets or in foreign organizations. You cannot stay in the garment sector for 15 years. That’s too exhausting. Thanks to these classes, some of them even went back to school. That is very encouraging
Q: What are WIC’s successes so far?
A: Every time we see one of our members becoming a union leader, it’s a victory. There aren’t many to date, but the movement is on. And we also had successes on major collective actions, like the PDC garment closure in 2008 [a supplier for Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch, ed. note]. The factory closed down unannounced and dismissed more than 500 workers without paying severance compensations. Workers were left jobless, with no money. WIC encouraged them to fight. We gave them legal counseling, got in touch with the Clean Clothes Campaign and after months of battle, 230 workers eventually got compensation. The others had abandoned the fight and found another job to survive.
Q: What is the added-value of collaborating with organizations like CCC?
A: International campaigns are extremely important because they have access to stakeholders at high level. We can’t. They can use the case studies that we compile here. And their communication towards consumers is also really effective. Consumers are informed and have a huge power, especially in Western countries. Of course, they still buy clothes from Gap, H&M or Levi’s – and that’s not wrong in my opinion – but they now express their willingness to see big brands improving working conditions in factories. Via the internet, they can participate in global campaigns towards big brands. And brands care about this because they cannot live without their customers.
Q: However, progress remains slow…
A: You are right, progress is really slow. Wages are still way too low. They do not match with the cost of living and the constant inflation. Take gasoline. Not so long ago, you only had to pay 1,000 riels for a liter. Today, it’s more than 4,000. Brands, factories and politicians should take this into account and adjust wages accordingly. Buyers remain the first responsible for this situation. Despite the international campaigns, they continue to put pressure on factories to keep wages as low as possible. Those who care about their image are sometimes cheated by the suppliers, who only show brands representatives a tiny part of the picture. And politicians don’t care or don’t really know what’s happening.
That’s why we have to work on every level. We have to push workers to join unions and fight for their rights. Unions must defend decent work and wages in factories. Consumers must speak out to the brands… Everything is linked. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to improve wages and working conditions in Cambodia!