Identity

The Cambodian Moms Sacrificing Their Health and Family to Make Your Clothes

They are the backbone of the country's garment industry—and its economy. But poor working conditions force many factory workers to live apart from their kids.

by Zoe Holman
Feb 8 2017, 4:35pm

Photos by Victoria Mørck Madsen

Peak hour on the congested roads of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, brings a spectacle that seems to single-handedly define industrialism. Truck-loads of workers, wedged onto cattle vans, are shipped from the provinces and outer suburbs to one of the hundreds of garment factories on the city's dusty outskirts.

Among them is 30-year old Sophan, who relocated from her home province of Kampong Cham two years ago to take up garment work. She is currently three-months pregnant, which makes her ten-hour shift in the oppressive factory environment even more onerous.

"Sometimes I need to vomit and I work more slowly than other people," Sophan says, speaking in a hurried lunch-break before the loudspeakers summon workers back to the production line. "Plus I always get sick, because since I've been working here my health is not very good."

I have already decided to have my parents look after my next baby.

The million-or-so employees like Sophan are the backbone of Cambodia's garment industry as well as its economy, with the sector accounting for around 80 percent of the country's exports. As many Cambodian factories are largely foreign-owned, they are also very often the operations behind Western wardrobes, producing the fabric for major brands such as H&M, Armani, Adidas and Gap.

80 per cent of garment factory workers are women, many of them very young. Photos by Victoria Mørck Madsen.

The factories are also almost exclusively staffed by women. Typically in their mid-twenties, most workers are also mothers or prospective mothers—a reality that employers seem unwilling to acknowledge through basic healthcare, childcare or maternity leave.

For families in Cambodia's poverty-stricken provinces, their daughters—as potential garment workers—are often their most lucrative asset. Thousands of young women are therefore encouraged to enter the industry, and either migrate to Phnom Penh or make hellish commutes of up to four hours each day.

Read More: The Hellish Commute of the Women Who Make Your Clothes

As one of the best-paid and most regulated sectors in the country, Cambodia's garment industry is often held up as a model of progressive labour reform (for example, by the UN). However, the lack of real law enforcement coupled with the demand for work in the industry means factories can and do exploit employees with little scrutiny—a circumstance that some campaigners describe as forced labour.

Crowds of workers stop at a nearby market after work. The daily average food budget for garment workers is between $0.70-0.90.

As Sophorn Yang, a leader from the Cambodian Garment Workers' Union explains, the problem is one of implementation more than regulation. "We already have the laws, we just need government to practise them," she says. "If they do, garment workers will feel confident about having a baby. What we also want is for factories to take responsibility."

We are afraid that the chemical products will affect our babies.

Sophorn's factory co-worker, 28-year-old Savory, has a three-year-old daughter and is five months pregnant. "There are a lot of challenges for pregnant women because we are afraid that the constant sitting and chemical products will affect our babies," she says. "If we had more money, we would get health check-ups. But besides working here, I don't know where else I could go."

Originally from Kampong Speu province, Savory, moved to the capital for work seven years ago. She has since married, but her husband is a construction worker (arguably Cambodia's most exploitative and underpaid industry) and there is little left for medical care from her $130 monthly wage. "The salary that I get from working is just enough to cover renting a house here, food, and school for my daughter," she says.

Off the busy highway leading to one of the major factories lies a maze of stilt houses, where most garment workers live.

Factory owners in the garment sector are required by law to provide pregnant workers a half-day's leave per month for check-ups, as well as additional rest-breaks. Employees of more than a year are also, in theory, entitled to three months maternity leave at half-pay. These are enlightened policies on paper, often pushed through by Western fashion brands under public scrutiny, but their implementation looks quite different.

Cambodia's garment industry is run off the back of short-term contracts, typically three to five months' long, which allows employers to cast off pregnant workers before they have accrued maternity leave or pregnancy entitlement.

An investigation earlier this year into conditions in H&M's production line in Cambodia (and elsewhere) found that most employers disregard laws altogether and simply fire pregnant workers outright. The pressures of the production line also mean sick leave is frowned-upon, and pregnant women are loath to exercise their rights in case they lose their jobs or receive a salary cut.

Workers pour out of a factory at the end of a long day.

While many factories do have on-site healthcare facilities, NGO studies have noted that these almost always exclude reproductive and maternal health services. For those women who are afforded rights, work-related factors like scant finances, travel distances and prohibitively long shifts often mean they are unable to access healthcare, making their entitlements redundant.

Lengthy working hours and commutes also mean that many young garment workers choose to migrate to the capital alone, sending back their wages—and ultimately, often their babies—to their families. As Savory explains, most employees have little or no access to child-care, so like many other women she decided to leave her first daughter in the care of her parents in the provinces, seeing her only on monthly visits home.

A garment worker prepares dinner.

"I have already decided to have my parents look after my next baby, so I will also need to send more money to them to buy milk," she says. "Before, I really wanted a baby and now I am always thinking about the difficulty. I am due to have a second one and I will keep it, but things totally change when you are pregnant."

Likewise, Sophan, whose husband is a rural farm worker, plans to leave her baby in her hometown with her partially-sighted mother as primary carer. "I know it will be hard [for my mother] to adapt to a baby because of my her problems," she explains. "I feel really concerned, but have no other choice."

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Beyond maternity rights, Cambodian garment factories are also obliged to provide day-care facilities for employees on-site. But in the rare event that owners comply, the services provided rarely amount to more than a token designated space with inadequate—or no—adult supervision. Workers typically describe barren factory rooms or a mêlée of screaming toddlers and babies attempting escape.

Women are naturally loathe to make use of such facilities and so the responsibility for childcare falls to grand-parents, who are themselves often ill-equipped for childcare in every way. A recent study of rural garment workers' children found troubling standards of hygiene, nutrition and supervision, with grandparents and extended families often too poor or too busy with manual labour for adequate care.

Chhailin arriving at work.

"There is a huge difference between when I was single and having a family," says Chhailin, a 33-year old mother of two from Prey Veng province who has worked in factories for 16 years (pictured below).

After the birth of her first child, now eight, Chhailin's mother came to live in the capital with Chhailin and her husband to take care of the new grandchild.

Chhailn at home with her visiting daughter.

But as the sole household earner, Chhailn's salary of USD $60-130 per month could not stretch to supporting a family in the capital after her second baby. Both her children now live in the provinces with her family, visiting her sporadically at annual public holidays, when finances permit.

"My parents are poor, but I just save money for my children to study and have knowledge, because I don't want them to work like me," she says.

Chhailin takes a moment to relax inside her stilt house.

Savory's concerns about her own children's future highlight what is essentially a problem of choice—or lack thereof—for women in Cambodia's garment factories. From rural backgrounds and with low levels of literacy and education, garment workers overwhelmingly recount having few alternatives beyond laborious farm-work or dubious employment in the countless seedy beer-gardens and karaoke bars of Cambodia's towns and cities.

"If there is no work at the factory, I don't know what I will do, because I don't have land for farming. If there was more money for workers, I wouldn't be so concerned about my family life."