2014 has barely begun, yet protests in Phnom Penh have gotten off to a bloody start.
Since December, thousands of Cambodian garment workers have taken to the streets to voice their discontent over a long-standing, irrelevant two-figure minimum wage. They need the base salary raised to at least $160 a month. But the government would only concede to $100.
Demonstrations raged on, coming to a head on Jan. 3 with the deaths of four and injuries in tens more.
Although the government has since forbidden protests, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know activism will never let up. So long as such conditions square with poverty, blood will water the streets of Phnom Penh.
Apparently, every one of us has blood on our hands.
Many of our clothes can be traced to Cambodia, a Mecca for offshore garment production. An estimated 600,000 Cambodians, mostly female, are employed as garment workers, whose efforts deck apparel emporiums around the world from H&M to Old Navy.
For their efforts, workers earn only some decimals above $3 a day for a shift as long as 17 hours, six days a week. Many borrow money just to buy food.
Their workplace mirrors the wretched pay. The ventilation is wanting, the noise pollution overwhelming, the toilets unsanitary. Worst, the garments emit toxic fumes, enough to lead to mass fainting.
Most workers come all the way from the rural provinces of Cambodia and are compelled to share the rent in cramped living quarters. Either this—or endure subsistence farming in the countryside.
Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an organisation of labour rights activists and trade unions, recommends $283 monthly as minimum wage for Cambodian garment workers.
But Cambodian workers will not likely transcend poverty pay, at least until Prime Minister Hun Sen ends his decades of rule. His dominant People’s Party counts the owners of garment factories as members.
Rather than adjust wages, owners shift the blame to their outsourcing clients, which include such familiar names as The Gap and Adidas. They also threaten that an increase in labour costs would force these companies to seek more competitively priced workforce elsewhere, robbing Cambodians of a $5 billion industry.
A threat largely unfounded, it is. Outsourcers may never find a better replacement for Cambodian garment manufacturers, especially now that rival China is setting a higher precedent in wages. But too afraid to stir the status quo, workers imagine no other choice than tolerating abuse.
What can you do?
Consumers have a moral obligation to stop the systematic devaluation of the Cambodian worker. You may help in ways big and small.
1. Buy where you are.
Learn to treat “made in Cambodia” as a sign of atrocity more than exoticness. Choose to buy locally made clothes. If you are in Australia, buy Australian-made clothes. If you are in the US, buy American-made clothes. With these goods, you are confident that their producers are lawfully compensated according to a fair local code as you know it.
2. Buy wisely.
Each purchase is a vote to more humane labour practices. Support brands whose supply chains transparently exclude sweatshops, hazardous factories, and underpaid workers. It won’t be easy to know the origins of your clothes, accessories and shoes, but you can start by checking if they carry the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) label. You can also patronise products that are Fair Trade Certiﬁed (FTF).
3. Write and speak.
Try to chat to the manager of the clothes shop. Ask if his or her company ensures the fair treatment and just compensation of workers and suppliers. Almost always, executives of companies are too rarefied to know their supply chains on a more profound level. In any case, tell the manager that you will not stand for unethically produced garments. Then write, call, and email the upper line, if only to tell them that you are switching to their more principled competitors.
That is, harness the power of social media to drive home the plight of Cambodian workers. Use Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Pinterest to reach the millions still in the dark. Take the opportunity to praise brands that make a quantifiable, evident difference.
5. Support unions.
Workers have every right to assemble unions that bind their employers to globally recognized labour standards. A company that allows union formations tends to uphold workers rights. Thankfully, many brands show a sign on their labels that says they allow unions. You may not join a union, but you can surely support their products with your business. It also helps to participate in petitions and other targeted consumer campaigns to make the establishment cave in. These gestures ensure that the fights of Cambodian workers amount to something.