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A public face for garments

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Adrian Ross, one of the garment sector's best-known figures, reflects on his absolute love for the industry and long history of successful labour relations

Photo by: Michael Hayes

Adrian Ross in his office at the New Island Clothing factory in Phnom Penh. The Northern Ireland native has spent eight years managing the factory in Cambodia out of a career spanning a total of 47 years.

47-year career

Adrian Ross has spent the past 47 years in the clothing industry, a career that started in Northern Ireland. For the last eight years he has been in Cambodia as general manager of New Island Clothing, from which he will retire next week. For many, Ross has been the public face of the industry, welcoming numerous delegations to his garment factory and tirelessly promoting of Cambodian workers' rights.

You've been a very public face of the Cambodian garment industry for many years. How did that role come about?

We have here a very successful factory.  I love my work and people always come here and say, ‘You ooze enthusiasm for it.' We've had Mr Wolfensohn here [the former World Bank president]. We've had Mr Zoellick come here [the current World Bank president]. ...We've had the president of the European Parliament come here. ... We've had practically everybody who has a camera come here, everybody who is involved in the newspaper field, we've had interviews across a wide spectrum.

People in the business community say that you've been a great diplomat for the garment industry. Did that role come about by chance?

I've loved the industry. I've really, really loved it. I've put all my life into it and it cost me dearly. ... I've always appreciated what people have done on the factory floor.

I mean it's not easy to sit there all day long for nine and a half hours and sew. The level of expertise and quality and the skill of these people, I take my hat off to them.

I've worked in different parts of the world, I've worked with Samoans, with Fijians, with Eastern Europeans, Western Europeans, with Chinese, with Indians, with Moroccans, English, Irish, Scottish, I've seen them all.

And what has surprised me, and I didn't expect to see it, is that the Cambodian workforce would actually end up in this  factory performing at levels close to, if not equal to, and in some case better than, what I'd seen in the developed countries....

We can stand against anybody, anywhere in the clothing industry in regard to the quality of our product, the manufacturing costs of that product and the commitment to delivery. ... I'm also proud to say that in  eight-and-a-half years I've never had a bad day with the workforce.

What's the key hurdle you've faced here?

Not being able to speak Khmer. If I'd spoken Khmer, I might have stayed on another 10 years.

What do you think the future is for your factory and the garment industry as a whole?

The garment industry in Cambodia, and everybody is aware of it, has to develop, has to become more cost effective. There has to be more streamlining on the factory floor, how things are done. ...

We have to get the young people in Cambodia who are educated to see this as a bigger picture, not something that only poor people do.  

There is a career here. But the point about it is that it's not easy. You have to deal with stress, with demands, with deadlines.

Have you been able to recruit qualified engineers to work with you?

We've been called a closed factory because we do everything in-house. We spend a lot of time on training because we want employees to understand our format.

Have you ever had any strikes here?

Never. I've never even had what you'd call a major dispute in this factory. I've worked hand-in-hand with management, with the workforce when they had big troubles or issues as individuals. I've taken on a semi-personal role where I'm involved in solving it.

How have your relationships been with government?

We've never had any reason to complain about any of the ministries that are involved with this factory.

We've been pretty transparent in everything we've had to do.

[The Ministry of Labour], and the hospitals have come here. We've even had the environmental people.  We even opened our doors to the Customs and Excise officers to come here and look at how the process in this factory worked so they can get a better understanding of what can be achieved.

We've never tried to manipulate or pull the wool over anyone's eyes and have worked on the principle of total transparency. ...

We have not got ourselves in corruption or anything of that nature. I mean, yes, there are small charges that occur here and there, but nothing you could call large and excessive.

What will you miss most when you leave Cambodia?

I'm going to miss the people. I never realised how much passion I would develop for the people I work with. ...

I'll really, really miss the people. ... I feel very empty, quite honestly, like something has been taken from me that shouldn't have been taken from me but life moves on.

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