The skin of their teeth, the shirt on your back

Her quick hands and sharp eyes have, for a year, inspected the stitching in a stream of clothes before they left a factory by a dusty potholed street in Phnom Penh to head to stores in Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Berlin, London and New York.

Today Ms Heit Ladi, 20, who eked out a living by the proverbial skin of her teeth on a monthly salary of US$80 (S$102) and just wanted more, lies staring at the ceiling in Phnom Penh's Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, her upper left arm shattered by two bullets.

She wonders if it will heal well enough for her to resume work. She is among over 30 left wounded when troops opened fire on striking workers on Jan 3. Five were killed. The local rights organisation, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, called it "the worst state violence to hit civilians in 15 years".

Seven global apparel brand names which buy from Cambodian factories, in an open letter to Cambodia's strongman Premier Hun Sen last Tuesday, expressed deep concern over "the widespread civil unrest and the government's use of deadly force".

The strike, its politicisation and the Premier's crackdown have thrown the light on a politically troubled country, a troubled industry, and the human cost of competitiveness. The workers were demanding a doubling of their minimum wage to US$160 a month this year.

Unions had rejected a government offer of US$100. The sector - which employs up to half a million, around 90 per cent of whom are women - earned Cambodia over US$5 billion in exports last year.

In recent years, the industry has boomed as factories relocated from China, where wages are several times higher. In Cambodia, workers typically live in tiny, 12 sqm rooms, with toilets the size of a large cupboard, and a ladder leading up to a wooden platform where two to three people can sleep.

Often there are five to seven workers to a room, splitting the US$40 monthly rent. They also pay around US$12 to US$15 a month for electricity and water. With whatever is left, the workers have to survive and send money to their families.

"If they were spending that US$80 and all the overtime and extra allowances only on themselves, it would be quite sufficient," said Ms Jill Tucker, chief technical advi- ser to the International Labour Organisation's "Better Factories Cambodia" programme, which monitors standards in the garment sector.

"But workers here are not just supporting themselves," she said.

"This is true in many countries but especially here - most workers are supporting maybe four to five people back in their villages." Yet as water flows to lower levels, so the garment industry has historically shifted to wherever cheaper labour is available - and that is the case in Cambodia.

"We are all paying the same for our garments as we were paying 10 years ago, maybe even less," said Ms Tucker. Said Mr David Welsh, head of the Cambodia office of the workers' rights organisation Solidarity Centre: "This industry seeks out countries where the rule of law is weakest and people are in such dire economic straits that they do any work."

Businesses tend to seek both low labour costs and stability, said British-based Mr P.R. Shakya, managing director of Phosphor International Cambodia, which has two garment factories in Cambodia and one in China.

Cambodia is still cheap but it is becoming less stable. From January to November last year, garment workers mounted 131 strikes, up from 121 for all of 2012. And that was before the latest strike, which began on Dec 26.

Mr Shakya lamented China's high wages but praised its stability - because there are no real labour unions in China, a feature it shares with another communist country, Vietnam. Cambodia, in comparison, offers low wages but labour relations have become unpredictable, he said. Bangladesh falls in the same category.

The next choice may be Myanmar, he said."My sense is, at some level, there is going to be a re-evaluation of the risks of placing orders in Cambodia," said Ms Tucker.

Ms Heit Ladi and her co-workers saw the New Year in chanting and dancing to music late into the night in the middle of Veng Sreng street area - the heart of the garment district - with many hundreds of other workers, including her 17-year-old sister.

But on Jan 2, the army's elite 911 brigade moved in to break up a strike and arrested more than 20 workers. When troops arrived again the next morning, angry workers pelted them with stones. The troops opened fire.

Eye-witnesses claim two soldiers even climbed onto the balcony of a small house and fired down at the workers.

When the riot started, Ms Heit Ladi fled to her room, which she shared with six others. Heart thumping, she watched the mayhem on the street outside, and then two bullets tore through her upper left arm, shattering the bone.

She was one of the lucky 38 who got away with bullet wounds and are lying in three hospitals in Phnom Penh. Five other garment workers were killed that day.

The unrest over wages and the resentment at the harsh government crackdown are combining with a shift in the political wind to create a potentially explosive mix.

The strike came as the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was mounting a prolonged protest against Mr Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), accusing it of having cheated its way to victory in last July's general election.For weeks on end, the CNRP had mustered several thousands on the streets of the capital, demanding a new election.

It also promised the striking workers that it would set US$160 as the minimum wage if it came to power. Mr Phay Siphan, spokesman for Cambodia's Council of Ministers, called the combined protests a "rebellion". The military in turn said it opened fire to prevent "anarchy".

Even an official of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia said the shooting was justified. Garment workers have become a political battleground for the ruling CPP and the opposition CNRP.

Some unions are pro-government. Some are pro-opposition and wary of collusion between the pro-government unions and the manufacturers.

Not all unions called for a strike. For workers like Ms Heit Ladi, salvation can likely come only from the very ones who now benefit from their low wages - the global clothing companies whose logos adorn the garments they churn out.

Last Wednesday's statement from the clothing companies was not strong enough, said Mr Welsh. But in an earlier encouraging development last November, Swedish company H&M, the world's second-biggest retailer of clothes, in a statement on raising wages said: "We believe wage development in production countries, which is often driven by governments, is taking too long.

H&M wants to take further action and encourage the whole industry to follow." Last week, it was Ms Heit Ladi and others like 20-year-old So Sambath, and 21-year-old Khorn Riy, who were both shot in the abdomen, who paid the real price of branded apparel. Ms Heit Ladi went to school until the fourth grade.

She came to the city from her village home in Kandal province to become a domestic worker in Phnom Penh, making US$50 a month.

Then she landed the US$80 job in a garment factory in Canadia Industrial Estate.

The Jan 3 incident may alter her life forever, and one scenario is almost certain: She will stay poor. "I don't save any money," she said. "And if I can't work any more, I will have to go back to the village."

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