Workers find silk industry in the countryside more palatable than the city, but the crisis is still biting
AS work becomes scarcer in Cambodian cities and salaries fall due to the economic slump, some unskilled labourers are returning home to take up employment in the traditional Cambodian handicraft of silk weaving.
Srey Pov, 18, left her job at a Phnom Penh garment factory when her overtime was cut and her salary dropped to just US$45 a month. After paying for food and rent, she had nothing left to send to her family, so she returned home.
She found a job with Oum Yorn, the owner of Chiso Silk Weaving, a small enterprise in Sla commune, in Takeo province’s Samrong district.
There she still earns only $45 a month, but the rural setting allows her to save $35.
Pleasant working life
As an added bonus, she says, she enjoys the work and the lifestyle.
“I had no freedom when I worked in the garment factory,” she said. “It is a good working environment here. I have no pressure from anyone, and my salary is the same as in the factory,” she said.
Her boss, Oum Yorn, is also an ex-city worker. He gave up his job as a construction worker in 2004 to return to his hometown to set up a business and capitalise on a growing interest in silk handicrafts.
“When I started to run the business, I thought it would be easy to make money because traditional Khmer handicrafts were showing great potential in domestic and international markets,” he said.
Like many businesses in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh market was key for the 55-year-old, who managed to find steady clients in the capital’s major markets. These stall owners in turn profited from a steady stream of tourists.
Oum Yorn also made a good trade at the nearby Phnom Chiso temple. “Over the last two years, a lot of tourists came to visit the ancient temple and bought our products.”
At its peak, the enterprise employed six weavers, but the success hadn’t lasted, he said.
“This year, fewer tourists have come here and if the tourists do not come, we cannot sell our products,” he said.
Oum Yorn estimates sales have halved since the middle of 2008, and he now employs only three weavers.
He has also noticed that consumers are tighter with their cash, preferring to buy lower-quality garments at cheaper prices, meaning demand for products made with Khmer Golden Silk, which is sourced from a silkworm only raised in Cambodia, has also dropped.
Sourcing from abroad
He now imports most of his raw silk from Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Imported silk is cheaper, he said, but vastly inferior.
“Khmer silk is more expensive than Vietnam silk, but it is much better quality. Unfortunately, I cannot buy it to make cloth because we cannot get a good price from our clients, not like last year and 2007.”
Oum Yorn said he was looking for a boost in sales over the Pchum Ben festival but was counting on a recovery of the silk sector for his long-term survival.
This depends in part on government efforts to help the sector develop new international markets for high-quality traditional Khmer handicrafts, he said: “I want the Cambodian government and NGOs to help us silk manufacturers by looking for more markets, as the silk industry has been hit hard by the world economic crisis.”
“I will expand my business over the next two years if everything recovers.”
For workers like Srey Pov struggling in the cities, the survival and growth of the sector could provide a welcome employment option until more well-paying jobs return to the country’s factories.