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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Back off the garment industry, says author

Back off the garment industry, says author


Garment workers leave their factory on the outskirts on Phnom Penh for their lunch break. Cambodia’s efforts to eliminate sweatshops should be better recognized by the international community, argues Rachel Louise Snyder in her new book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.

Cambodia leads the world’s developing

nations in eradicating sweatshop conditions in the garment manufacturing industry,

and if this industry were to fail here it would be a blow in the global battle

against sweatshops.

A contentious view perhaps, but that’s the belief

firmly held by Phnom Penh-based author Rachel Louise Snyder, who spent almost

three years traveling the world researching the global garment industry for her

book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and

Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.

The book was recently published in the United States

and is about to be published in almost a dozen other countries.


original hometown newspaper, the Chicago

Tribune, gave her work a glowing review, saying, "The strongest passages in

the book come from Cambodia,

where Snyder lives.


tells the stories of Ry and Nat, two women who are part of Cambodia’s

experiment to improve working conditions as its garment industry grows. A

bilateral agreement with the Clinton

administration tied the size of Cambodia’s


export quota to efforts to eradicate sweatshops.

"It has

worked, but recent pressures from the expiration of worldwide trade quotas

provoke fear in Cambodia

that its fledgling industry could be shut out by cheaper countries that don't

pay workers as much.”


who has just returned to Phnom Penh after a busy

US book tour, told the Post
that Cambodia’s

groundbreaking attempts to stave off developing nation sweatshop conditions in

its garment industry "seemed to me to be important and something that should be written about.”

Snyder first came to Cambodia as a backpacker in 1996

and returned in 2003 to write about the Khmer Rouge tribunals for US magazine The New


But the government, and the tribunal, went into an 11-month

stall shortly after Snyder moved here with her husband, a former British

military commando, so she turned her attention to the garment industry.

"In the interim I found that the garment industry was

in some ways a far more interesting topic to write about. At least something

was happening with it, put it that way,” she said.

She compiled a half-hour segment for a US

public radio show, This American Life. That piece won her an Overseas Press Award and in turn that

landed her a contract to write the book for US publisher W.W. Norton &

Company, Inc.

She said that when she started her investigations into

the global garment industry, she realized that the Cambodian sector had a

unique position within developing nations.

"It quickly became obvious to me that what was

happening in Cambodia

had much more significant ramifications than just within its own borders here.

"If this country’s manufacturing base fails, that’s

significant because it’s the only developing country in the world that has

attempted to across the board eradicate sweatshops – it’s the only one.


Author Rachel Louise Snyder reads from her book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade at her home in Phnom Penh, March 5.

"There are definitely problems in the industry here,

and they have cropped up more and more in the past year. But if this government

allows the garment industry to fail because they can’t get rid of the

corruption and the red tape, and they cannot keep the sweatshops out, I do then

think it speaks volumes for what hope we have for the rest of the manufacturing

nations, the other 59 manufacturing countries around the world, many of which

have sweatshops.

"That seemed to me to be important and something that

should be written about.”

She said the irony of the Cambodian garment industry

is that while it is a relatively sweatshop-free industry, it is perceived in

countries like the US

as the archetypal sweatshop country.

"I’ve heard references to Cambodian sweatshops in TV

sitcoms,” she said. "There is that assumption.”

In October 2003, American actress Minnie Driver said

she would spend "weeks, perhaps months” toiling alongside workers in Cambodian

sweatshops to "help raise standards, pay and conditions of

employment in developing countries."


Snyder said, "I

remember when Minnie Driver came here to protest sweatshops and there was a big

public relations to-do about it. I kept thinking this is not the country for

that. This is the country that is trying to eradicate sweatshops.

"They could have gone to Jordan, which just had huge, huge

problems with indentured servitude in its manufacturing. They could have gone

to India,

where last fall they were outed for having child labor.

"But instead they came here, to Cambodia.

"The assumption that Cambodia is a sweatshop nation is

just not counter-balanced by the other side, which is that there are people who

are trying to do things the right way here.

"The Cambodian system is not a perfect system but

you’ve got to support the attempt anyway.”



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