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Centre sews seeds of change

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Pin Phallah (right), head seamstress for the local boutique Spicy Green Mango, keeps a watchful eye over the production of clothes. Photo by: Tom Brennan

The Cambodia Skills Development Center recently held a graduation ceremony for students in two of its vocational training courses – pattern-making and production management for small and medium enterprises. Reporter Tom Brennan interviews one graduate about her experience.

Pin Phallah (right), head seamstress for the local boutique Spicy Green Mango, keeps a watchful eye over the production of clothes. Photo by: Tom Brennan

PIN Phallah runs a two-room sewing shop in Phnom Penh’s Toul Tom Poung commune where she and seven employees, all women from the neighbourhood, are responsible for most of the clothes sold at local boutique Spicy Green Mango.

As proud as the 43-year-old single mother is of her work, where she and her staff can turn out as many as 40 or 50 pieces of clothing a day, her shop isn’t quite where she’d like it to be.

Beyond the cramped workspace, Pin Phallah has, until recently, lacked the skills necessary to grow her business.

Like most Cambodian garment workers, she has known only “cut, make, trim”, which is just part of the entire manufacturing process. Nor has she had any formal methods for controlling costs, estimating prices or managing production.

Despite these obstacles, Pin Phallah seems focused on only one thing.

“I want a big business that has a lot of people” working for me, she said, standing outside her studio.

Spicy Green Mango owner Anya Weil wanted to grow her business without leaving Pin Phallah behind, so she reached out to the Cambodia Skills Development Center (CASDEC) for help.

She and CASDEC Director Tep Mona came up with a plan, part of which involved classes for Pin Phallah to take.

CASDEC is an NGO that provides training and consultancy services to the garment industry. The NGO is trying to help Cambodia compete for regional investment and jobs by developing the country’s companies and workforce.  

Tep Mona has created two classes in particular: pattern-making, the first of its kind in Cambodia, and production management for small and medium enterprises.

Pattern-making will help to add a new element to Cambodia’s overall garment-making capabilities, Tep Mona said, while the latter course will teach workers all the different levels of the manufacturing process, whether it’s managing workers, estimating profit margins or simple housekeeping.

This will help the women  get the jobs often held by visiting workers. As of 2007, the United States Agency for International Development found that foreigners accounted for 2 percent of the garment sector workforce but made up 10 percent of the total wages paid.

“So more and more investors can see [that] Cambodians are skilled now. They can do this and this and this and this. And [at] a much lower cost than other countries. So [investors] should come to Cambodia and invest in Cambodia’,” she said.

Most of the 32 students involved took one or the other of the classes, but Pin Phallah earned certificates in both.

Anya Weil has noticed a positive change in the interim.

“It really makes a big difference,” Weil said.

“I see her being much more confident in everything.” Other graduates of these courses have seen changes, too. Suon San, 27, used to be one of the Phnom Penh dump children targeted by French NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, but now she works for PSE as a sewing manager.

At the graduation ceremony, she called the production management for SMEs class “very beneficial”, saying her operation, which makes clothes for the kids still collecting trash in order to survive, now boasts an assembly line process just like a professional factory.

Kuy Chenda, a 29-year-old assistant production manager for the Daughters of Cambodia’s sewing department, said the pattern-making class benefited more than just her.

“It’s very good not only for me, but also I can transfer the knowledge to others,” she said.

Still, there are limits to what students can achieve with just these two classes. And Tep Mona admits as much.

Few are ready to open their own shops, but they can at least work as a pattern-maker’s assistant.

Others, meanwhile, have merely added a bit of knowledge to their overall understanding of the industry.

Pin Phallah, though, seems determined. Thanks to the classes, she feels “better than before”, she said, and is ready to grow. Her plan now is to seek a loan from the bank and build above where she is based so as to escape the rains that often flood her workspace.

“Maybe two or three [more] floors,” she said.

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