Low pay fuels anger among Cambodia's garment workers

Low pay fuels anger among Cambodia's garment workers

PHNOM PENH - As night falls thousands of weary workers stream from textile factories that fan out across Phnom Penh's outskirts, the clothing industry's desire for cheap labour having created an abundance of jobs.

But as the number of international clothes companies tapping into Cambodia's workforce grows, so does anger at the low wages and tough conditions that come with such employment in the global garment industry.

Twenty-five-year-old Ou Nin looks exhausted as she describes working for an American clothes brand for just over US$5 (S$6.24) a day.

"They print on T-shirts. The smell is very unpleasant, it is unbearable," she told AFP while waiting for the truck to take her home.

Overwork, malnutrition and poor ventilation are to blame for staff fainting in factories since 2010, according to Moeun Tola, program manager at the Community Legal Education Centre, which provides advocacy for workers.

"It's often hot inside these factories. Sometimes they inhale toxic substances," he said, adding that last year 1,100 workers are known to have lost consciousness at work while a further 30 fainted in a workshop in mid-January.

With bonuses and overtime, workers can earn an average of US$110 a month - a low salary given Cambodia's cost of living that forces many to work beyond the legal limit of sixty hours a week, often at the expense of their health.

A series of strikes point to festering discontent - leaving the big global clothes brands and the factories they subcontract to trade accusations over who is driving salaries down.

Protests by workers have also turned ugly. Three women, employees of Puma supplier Kaoway Sports, were wounded when a gunman opened fire on protesters demanding better working conditions at factories in eastern Svay Rieng province in February last year.

The shooting prompted Puma, Gap and H&M to express their "deep concern" and urged a thorough investigation.

But discontent lingers on the factory floor where 400,000 of the 650,000 people employed in the industry work for foreign firms.

Soey Eao, who has worked for five years in the industry, lives in a dormitory behind her factory, paying nearly US$20 a month to share a cramped room with three colleagues.

Hundreds of workers co-exist in similar spartan concrete lodgings, without water or electricity.

"With overtime, I can reach US$78 a month. I work twelve hours a day, sometimes seven days in a row to earn more," the 24-year-old says, adding that she sends a third of her salary to her family.

"I've already protested for a raise. I cannot even eat well because I'm trying to put money aside, I just buy the minimum to survive."

Soey Eao is hopeful her situation may change with her union pushing to boost the minimum wage from its current level of US$60 a month to around US$100.

But while strikes have turned up the heat on factory owners and international brands, she says many workers still "do not even know they have rights."

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