The garment industry is the largest sector of the Cambodian economy, representing Cambodia’s biggest export with an industry employing hundreds of thousands of workers. Like those in Bangladesh, Cambodia’s factories have structural problems while the garment workers suffer inhumane working and living conditions. Striking workers have been protesting repeatedly to demand a decent living wage. Working six days a week, 8 hours a day, they carry a monthly wage of 61 USD, barely enough to meet their basic living expenses. According to the report „Shop ‘Til They Drop” the employees consume around half the calories needed for garment factory work, while protein intake fell well below half the basic human need. The recommended 3,000-calorie diet alone would cost around USD 75 a month. The serious malnourishment of the industry’s over 400,000 people - mostly women and girls - together with poor working conditions have caused numerous incidents of mass faintings and collapses in the factories over recent years.
Text and images by Steffi Eckelmann, 2013
The garment workers I interviewed and photographed for this photo spread are mostly living in rented rooms in a Phnom Penh suburb nearby garment factories producing clothes for international brands. Three to six women share just one room, not bigger than 8 square metres, often even without a window or any fresh air. No furniture, simply plastic sheets on the floor to sleep on, a toilet and portable gas stove with some pots for cooking. It is washing, eating and sleeping in cramped conditions for years. The women share the cost of the room, of water and electricity which sums up to 30-40 USD per person per month.
They are working from 7am until 4pm with one-hour lunch break. Overtime ranges from two to four hours but easily extends to six hours and often includes Sunday work or night shifts particularly during peak season. The extended working hours adversely affects the health and wellbeing of the workers. The list of occupational injuries and illnesses is long and leads from fatigue, stress, depression to general health complaints (headache, stomach ache, nausea, dizziness, chest disease, sore throat, gastrointestinal diseases), to cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections and all-cause mortality.
Photography as Activism
My name is Steffi Eckelmann. I am a freelance photographer from Germany, currently living in Munich. Being a photographer means for me using the medium photography to raise awareness about injustice in the world to eventually help making the world a better place. Because of a scholarship I was able to spend 5 months in Cambodia in 2012 supporting different NGOs with my visual skills. One of my greatest concern ever since I read the book „No Logo” by Naomi Klein many years ago has been the working and living conditions of garment workers. All these years, those working conditions have only improved slowly despite all the information appearing in newspapers more and more. It makes me terribly sad and furious. How can people still silently accept, ignore or simply shut their eyes to all these horrible and unbearable facts? Coming across all the articles about mass fainting at Cambodian garment factories last year, I have decided to portray and interview garment workers to raise more awareness for the working conditions in garment factories and the lives they are living. My hope is to get consumers involved and to make them think about their buying habits as well as the connection between the pain of some and the wealth of others. More reflection in the world is needed, more transparency, more understanding as well as critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to eventually create a change in the world.
The Visual Concept
To do research, I was working closely with two unions in Phnom Penh. One of them was C.CAWDU. I joined several strikes with Athit Kong to document the events and visited a lot of garment workers at their homes. They allowed me to have a look at their living conditions and shared with me about their working conditions. I finally decided on the visual concept of the photo spread. No distraction should allow the viewer of these portraits to drift away with their thoughts, with their involvement, with their sense of guilt. As the working conditions in the garment industry are rather kept in the dark – or at least tried to be kept in the dark –, I decided to bring some stories of garment workers to light. For several Sundays, I was building a small photo studio in one room shared by 4 garment workers and photographed 35 garment workers – all wearing a black t-shirt – against a black background. The worker’s faces were ‘drawn’ in the darkness through light that came from one side. With only a small window providing the room with barely enough fresh air, I could experience how it feels to spend a whole day in an extremely confined and heated space and can finally imagine more precisely how a garment workers’ life outside the factory must be. It was crucial for me to portray these workers with immense respect and dignity as I have the deepest respect for them. The life they face day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, is one of the toughest. And yet, they all shared a smile with me. The photo spread is not only documenting the inhumane exploitation of garment workers by international brands but at the same time shows a generation of Cambodian workers that the world should pay tribute to. There is no more time to shut one’s eyes and banish from one’s mind.
Miss Nop Saveit is 29 years old and has been working in the garment industry for ten years. Working extensive overtime on a daily basis has always been part of her job since she was 19 as well as a six-day week with only one day off. Nop Saveit is currently a seamstress at „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh. All these years working as a seamstress have had a bearing to Nop Saveit’s health. She is constantly tired and weak and suffers from heavy headaches. On Sundays, when she is not working, she usually travels back to her hometown to see and support her family. She dreams of being married and working as a saleswoman in a small dress shop.
Long Pisey, age 35, started to work as a seamstress when she was 23 years. All these 12 years as a garment worker, she has been struggling to survive with the little money she earns. The excessive heat level in the factory where she is sewing is unbearable for her but she has no choice but to even work overtime. She hopes that one day she will be able to have her own sewing shop. On her day off, she just stays at home, being exhausted. She tries to get some sleep which is sometimes difficult as she shares the room with three other people. One of them is always sick which makes it impossible for the other women in the room to get rest. They have to look after each other and support each other like a family as relatives often live far away.
At the age of 16, Nop Nimol, today 24 years old, moved to Phnom Penh to work as a seamstress. She is currently working in building no. 3. Instead of being forced to meet the almost impossible quota every day and working overtime in a cruelly hot and noisy factory, she would prefer to decorate clothes. On her day off, there is no energy left but to rest lying on the bare floor. She hopes that one day she would be able to buy a small house and have one or two children and a husband. But she is afraid this will just remain a dream.
Sean Raksmey is 22 years old with already seven years of work experience as a seamstress. She is working at the „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh but would rather be a saleswoman selling beautiful dresses. She hopes that the brands will increase the minimum wage as it is really hard for her to cover all her expenses and still send some money home to her family. The only food that she can afford is the one in the street near the factories which is not the healthiest food. On Sundays, when she is not working, she stays at home to rest and do house work.
Miss Roeun Senghak, 22 years old, has been working as a seamstress at the „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh for three years. She is suffering from strong headache due to the heat and no fresh air while working six days a week. Her living conditions aren’t any better either as she shares a small room without any window with four other women. Yet, on her day off, she stays in her room as she is too exhausted from work. She wants to make as much money as possible as long as she is still young to send it back to her family in need.
Miss Pov Sophar, 25 years old, started to work as a seamstress when she was 19 years old. Ever since she has moved to Phnom Penh to work she misses her family. She would prefer to live close to her hometown and decorate clothes instead of sewing up to 12 hours a day in a hot factory six days a week. Sometimes the women and girls in her factory are not even allowed to take a bathroom break spending the whole shift on their feet. She hopes that one day she will meet her future husband to save her from the job as a seamstress but she is wondering where she will ever meet him. On her day off she is just staying in her room.
At the age of 14, Om Sarorn, today 22 years old, had to start to earn money to support her family. It is eight years now that she has been sewing six to seven days a week at „Marachun”. Every morning she travels 1,5 hours on a truck to Phnom Penh and another 1,5 hours back after a long and exhausting day in the factory. She is always tired and feels weak but still has to help her familiy on the farm on her day off. She hopes that the clothing companies will increase the minimum wage so that she is no longer forced to work extensive overtime to have enough money for her family and herself. If she had a choice she would rather be a saleswoman than a seamstress.
Miss Kay Chantha is 24 years old. She has been sewing at the „Neworient Company” with five years of work experience. Together with five other women, she shares a small room with lack of privacy for each one of them. On her day off, she likes to read a book to banish all sad thoughts about her working and living conditions and dreams of having a family and a farm one day. She loves to work outside with fresh air and not inside a hot and noisy factory with no air conditioning system.
Miss Ren Eim is already 42 years old. For 12 years she has been working as a seamstress and is currently employed by the „Neworient Company”. All these years working in the garment industry have had consequences for Ren Eim’s health. She is suffering from headache and heavy coughing ever since she has started to work as a seamstress. As Ren Eim is already older, she is afraid of getting sick and having no health insurance to cover her needs which is the reason why she is working as much overtime as her health allows it. On her day off, she tries to recover from work as much as possible just staying in her room, which she shares with two other women.
On Phoun, 38 years old, is a seamstress at the „Neworient Company”. For ten years she has been sewing, often working overtime seven days a week. Even though she has learned to live a very basic life, saving money at the end of the month is almost impossible. The more she works, the easier she gets sick and in need of medication, which causes a vicious cycle of debt, poverty and bad health. As most of her colleagues she just takes a rest staying in her room when she is not working. She is sometimes even too exhausted to cook.
Nget Sokvann is 28 years old and has been working as a seamstress at the „Neworient Company” for seven years. Earning a wage of 65 USD makes it almost impossible for her to survive and still contribute an income to her family. She needs to support the education of her younger sister and pay for the treatment of her mother being ill. Feeling dizzy and having a headache while working is something she is used to. She tries not to question her life but just keeps going. Her dream is to just stay at home with her family to take care of them and work on the farm.
Miss Mourng Chanthorn is 27 years old with six years of working experience as a seamstress. She hasn’t given up her dream to have a small shop one day sewing dresses for weddings. She would love to start a business with her sister who is ironing at a garment factory and suffering a lot. She starts to work at 7am working extensive overtime and having no break between 12pm and 9pm. Mourng Chanthorn is worried how much longer her sister will be able to manage this job and life. She hopes that the minimum wage will be increased soon.
Miss Gnel Kimly, 29 years old, feels the devastating effect that 11 years of working as a seamstress have on her health. The poor quality of food she is able to afford due to the little money she earns causes regular stomach aches and problems with her intestines. Enduring the pain is sometimes hard but she has no money left to see a doctor. She is worried about all the young girls starting to work in the garment industry at the age of 14 years or even younger. On her day off, she stays in her small room that she shares with another five seamstress.
Miss Bo Channa, 20 years old, got her first job in the garment industry when she was 18 years old. After only 2 years of working as a seamstress in building no. 3, she is already constantly tired suffering from headache and nausea. On Sundays when she is not working she is just sleeping all day long. She feels no energy left to take any action, meeting friends or family. All these hours in an extremely hot factory, with only little water and strict supervisors controlling every move stresses her to the highest extent. Sometimes she just wants to be on her own but as she is sharing the room with five other women, this is never possible. But hopefully one day, when she is married and living in a nice house, she will find that peace she is longing for every day.
Seven years of sewing have had an unhealthy impact on Sem Chantoeun’s life. At the age of only 26 years she has been constantly suffering from respiratory problems. The temperature in the factory is far from acceptable and the air is full of chemicals. Being exposed to such surroundings between six to seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day is unbearable for Sem Chantoeun. She would love to live a different life with healthy working conditions and a decent wage. She hopes that one day she can have her own little shop with an air conditioning system, no more health problems and with time and energy to meet friends.