In the garment industry the low-paid workers are ethnic Khmer; the high-paid supervisors
Most of Cambodia's garment factories have a firmly established hierarchy: a management
team is the top tier of supervision under which are the quality controllers, supervisors,
and finally, the workers.
Khmer garment factory workers gather outside the gates of the Zheng Yong Garment Factory on Russian Boulevard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Most of Cambodia's garment factories are owned by companies headquartered in China or Taiwan, and the overwhelming majority of managers are from those countries.
With the exception of a small number of other Asian nationalities, Cambodians and
ethnic and expatriate Chinese comprise the two main labor groups in the country's
roughly 300,000-strong textile trade workforce.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia,
estimates that there are about 30,000 Chinese from China, including Hong Kong, working
in the garment sector.
But according to factory executives and labor union leaders, , the division between
blue-collar and white-collar workers is drawn brazenly, and unfairly, along clearly
defined ethnic lines.
And although the importance of the Chinese role in the garment industry is indisputable,
the gap between Chinese management and supervisors and ethnic Khmer laborers has
some industry insiders blasting the existing corporate structure as disrespectful,
discriminatory and even, at times, racist.
"From my observations 99 percent of supervisors are Chinese," said Ath
Thun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions (CCAWDU).
"In the past, I acknowledge that it was fair to choose Chinese as supervisors
because at the time we didn't have enough skill. But now, we have enough skill, the
same as the Chinese. Today, even when they select Cambodian supervisors, they are
still paid less then the Chinese. I think it is racism."
According to the International Labour Organization, the garment industry is one of
Cambodia's main revenue sources. It accounts for around 12 percent of Cambodia's
gross domestic product (GDP) and makes up almost 80 percent of all Cambodia's exports.
Sixty-five percent of the roughly 270,000-member manufacturing labor force works
in the more than 200 garment factories in the country.
The factories, mostly in Phnom Penh and near the port of Sihanoukville, are mainly
owned by companies based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan - although Malaysian and
Singaporean firms are also invested in the sector. In 2005, over 71 percent of garment
exports were shipped to the United States, and 22 percent to Europe.
"Cambodia can attract garment investments because it had a quota to the US before
- but it has no industrial base and the people have limited skills," Wong Swie-Hwa,
vice chairwoman of the China Hong Kong and Macau Expatriate and Business Association
of Cambodia, told the Post on June 9.
"Cambodians are lazy and their productivity is low, but their quality is rising,"
Wong said the US buyers usually place orders with Hong Kong garment trading agencies,
then the Hong Kong agents deliver the orders to the factories in Cambodia.
The factory owners employ many Chinese as supervisors and technicians because they
are generally inexpensive and have more experience, she said.
"Another important reason for employing Chinese nationals is that they share
a common language with owners from Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking countries,"
Wong said. "Employers find it hard to communicate with Cambodians because they
cannot speak Cantonese or Mandarin."
Chinese supervisors often earn US$500 a month, while Cambodians in the same position
receive half that. But in addition to their salary the Chinese may have their living
expenses paid for them and get air tickets for trips back home.
'Chinese employees deserve more'
"Chinese employees deserve more because they have to leave their country to
work here," Wong said. "The employers also pay their food, lodging and
air tickets to home."
CCAWDU's Thun said that based on 2004 figures, Cambodian supervisors were paid only
$150 to $200, while Chinese received $400 to $500.
Loo said Chinese nationals play a big role in the Cambodian garment industry.
According to Loo, Cambodian workers can learn from the Chinese nationals "who
were experienced in the garment trade." After all, he said, the garment and
textile trade has been thriving for many years in China.
"The Chinese mainly differ in the fact that they are more experienced and that
they are usually more hard-working," Loo said. "They have left their homeland
and ventured overseas to come to Cambodia hoping to earn more money."
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, estimates that Cambodians represent
less than 25 percent of the garment industry's management and mid-management positions.
He concedes that Chinese are selected to overhead positions because of their skill,
but he blames employers for failing to advance qualified Cambodians. Mony said that
since he became involved in garment sector labor unions, he has not seen a single
factory train its workers for managerial positions.
"We are very polite: we always respect our duties, but we are not recognized
for being able to work in other areas of production," Mony said. "They
do not wish to talk to us, so the gap between us is wide."
A range of interviews conducted by the Post in Cantonese and Mandarin with Chinese
and Taiwanese factory executives revealed negative attitudes towards Cambodian employees.
"Cambodians cannot work in high positions as we do because they are backward
and not educated enough," said Wu Lim-houng, a merchandiser from Shandong, China,
who has worked in Phnom Pneh since 2002. "They do not know how to supervise."
'Lower-ranking workers Cambodians'
Wu's factory employs 7,000 to 8,000 workers, and most of them are Cambodians. About
5,000 of them work from 6am to 3pm, while the rest work from 3pm to 11pm. He said
garment factories generally require at least 500 employees, and some need as many
"Eighty to ninety percent of all supervisors are Chinese, and the lower-ranking
workers are Cambodians," Wu said.
Wu said the Cambodians usually earn $45 a month, with a $5 bonus if they are neither
late nor absent. If a Cambodian works overtime, the salary may reach $70 to $80.
"Labour Law in Cambodia limits overtime to two hours a day, but most factories
do not follow," Wu said. "Almost every worker works three to four hours
An ILO report said the frequency and duration of overtime remain an issue in most
factories. More than two thirds of the factories surveyed did not limit overtime
to two hours per day.
Merchandisers like Wu can earn as much as $700 a month. When their experience accumulates,
it can top $1,000.
"Chinese usually make a better living than Cambodians. Certainly we can earn
more than if we stay in China, otherwise we would not choose to stay here,"
A Chinese quality-assurance supervisor, Amy Yu, agrees that salary is the main incentive
to work in Cambodia. Yu was hired in 2003, by her aunt who works as a garment factory
In Yu's department, a Cambodian assistant makes $60 to $70 a month. Yu receives $400.
"Cambodians are very hard to manage - they are not responsible and lazy,"
said Yu, who said she tells Cambodians everything she knows. "The standard of
Cambodians is low, and their thinking is old-fashioned."
Chinese citizen Li Zu-mei was attracted by better pay in Cambodia. She got her job
as a quality-controller from a longtime friend.
"My employers pay my lodging and food," Li said. "They also buy me
round-trip air tickets back home. That's why I've been here from Jiangsu in China
for three years."
Li said most quality controllers are Chinese. Some of them work for more than one
factory, and she works for two now in order to make more money.
"I save money for home, and I can save more in Cambodia because my bosses pay
my living expenses and work visa," Li said. "I almost don't have any expenses."
Cambodian workers are not so fortunate. According to ILO research, most garment workers
are poor, young women from the provinces with little education. Many live in overcrowded
lodging, have little money for food, and send a large portion of their salaries home
to their families each month.
"We make only $50 a month, but we have to spend $47 on living expenses,"
Mony said. "It is very hard and life is no good."
According to Alonzo Suson, country forum director for the American Center for International
Labor Solidarity, the Chinese management style has yet to warm to labor unions.
"It's about cultural values and treatment. They don't know how to deal with
unions," Suson said. "They come from a country where the workforce is controlled.
They come here and say 'Wait a second - these workers have rights?'"
Suson urged factory owners to train more Cambodian supervisors.
"The Chinese factory owners bring in their own people, that has been identified
as a problem," he said. "They don't employ local managers. Putting that
practice into place here can seem disrespectful."
"If I were in union shoes, I'd be calling for an upgrading of skills."