At some point during the planting season this year, Pheap Srey Ngoun will leave her garment factory floor for a rice paddy in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province.
Like many fellow garment workers she will leave her position, with permission from the factory, to lend a hand to her parents in the field. Splitting time among rural and urban life is commonplace in cultures such as Cambodia’s, which straddles a fine line between tradition and modernity.
But not all employees at garment factories – the Kingdom’s number one earner of foreign exchange – ask for leave. During the planting season that runs from May to August, and the harvest in November and December, factories see up to 20 per cent of the workforce head home unannounced to sow or reap the grain.
“Some of the population that has moved to the city is still very much linked to life in the countryside,” said Mona Tep, director at the Society of Human Resource Management & Productivity, which trains Cambodians for work in industries such as manufacturing.
Although Cambodia does not lack young and able workers, garment manufacturers have struggled to allocate that labour to Phnom Penh, where factories are concentrated on the outskirts of the city, she said.
Sudden and unannounced trips home have added to the list of obstacles facing the industry, which has included mass faintings and widespread labour strikes.
The industry as a whole sees up to 15 per cent annual turnover, and industry experts have recounted a so-called “game of musical chairs” for workers between factories.
Sang Oeu, a 40-year-old garment maker from Kampong Cham, leaves her garment factory in the capital’s Chom Chao as infrequently as possible to avoid being laid off, she said on Sunday. The mother of two has seen many co-workers return to the fields unannounced, only to find jobs at other factories.
“Many people go home to work, but when they come back they can’t get their job back. They have to go to another factory,” she said.
The problem is not exclusive to Cambodia; it’s common in many countries in the region where manufacturing and rural life share a close proximity, William Anderson, head of Adidas’s social and environmental affairs in the Asia-Pacific region, said recently in an email.
“This is … a common phenomenon in many parts of Asia, where say a manufacturer is using rural workers who are still tied to the land and the harvest and are within traveling distance to their home or home village,” he said, adding that Adidas’s supply chain in the country has not been affected by sudden departures.
Most factories turn returning workers away, according to Mona Tep and garment makers interviewed by the Post. Yet given the country’s shortage of labour in its manufacturing hubs, some factories may need to loosen rehiring policy until conditions improve, Mona Tep said.
Higher wages have been shown to keep employees out of the fields, she added.
“If you have a good wage, you’re not going to go back to the fields. You’re going to hire someone to do the work for you,” she said.
The value of garment exports during the first half of 2012 increased by about 8 per cent compared to the same period last year. Growth in value, however, dropped some 90 per cent, the Post reported yesterday. The export value of the sector – largely thought to have re-emerged from the global financial crisis – jumped 75 per cent the between January and June in 2011.
Garment and shoe exports accounted for about 84 per cent of Cambodia’s total exports, worth US$2.4 billion in the first half of the year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.
However, labour strikes this year have stalled production and, according to industry insiders, could keep new investment out of the country.