In the rising heat of the midday sun, garment workers in long-sleeved shirts and hats lined National Road 4 yesterday.
Many milled outside factories – congregating around mobile food vans – while others trekked along the road in search of somewhere better to find lunch.
Those who wandered past the lone restaurant at the gateway to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (SEZ) kept walking: a meal at this restaurant could set them back a whole month’s salary – and then some.
Diners at Luu Meng’s Yi Sang restaurant can pay exorbitant amounts to have their hunger satiated.
Shark fin soup sells for $78, as do servings of papaya bird’s nest stew. Those longing for abalone with seafood in a clay pot, meanwhile, will fork out $88 for the delicacy.
The restaurant’s assistant manager, Neak Sophea, said the majority of Yi Sang’s patrons are foreign businessmen visiting the SEZ to deal with the interests of their factories, many of which contribute to Cambodia’s biggest export industry by producing garments for the US and European markets.
“Most of our customers are from China,” Sophea said. “Some come in large groups.”
The restaurant – which also sells “special” roast goose for $60 – caters to the needs of this exclusive clientele.
“Our business is busy from Monday to Friday,” Sophea said. “Saturday and Sunday are holidays for us.”
The sumptuous dining at Yi Sang is in stark contrast with how garment workers were preparing to dine inside the SEZ.
Thy Bun Thoeun was one of many who filed into a sheltered yard at the side of the Evergreen Industrial garment factory during her break.
In this yard, vendors pay the factory’s management for the right to sell curry in a bag.
“I don’t think they cook in a hygienic way because they have to do it quickly,” Bun Thoeun, 18, said. “But I have no choice. I buy the food here every day and I spend only 500 to 1,000 riel for lunch.”
Afternoons of stomachaches and nausea are not uncommon for Bun Theoun, but the alternative to the steamed rice and curry that vendors hand out like wartime rations is to bring food from home.
Living on the minimum wage of $61 per month – a figure that will rise to $75 next month – Bun Theoun said cooking herself is something she can’t afford to do.
“I spend at least 5,000 to 6,000 riel. It’s much cheaper to buy here.”
The $14 monthly minimum pay increase should, in theory, make life easier for workers in an industry known for poor nutrition and fainting incidents.
However, according to labour-rights groups, such as the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, when the minimum garment wage increases, so does the cost of food around factories.
It’s one of the reasons ACILS and others have pushed for the big brands that buy from Cambodia to fund an industry-wide nutrition program that would provide workers with regular meals and snacks.
As things stand, this is something that is done by only a small number of factories – at their own expense.
Jill Tucker, ILO-Better Factories chief technical adviser, said nutrition programs have widespread support across the industry.
“But not everyone can agree on who should pay,” she said.
This is because only anecdotal evidence existed that such programs would benefit factories and brands as much as workers, Tucker added.
Such anecdotes include a factory attracting more applicants after introducing a food program – amid a workers shortage – and morning snacks causing more employees to arrive on time and fewer to fall ill.
“So our approach is to prove scientifically there are benefits,” Tucker said, adding that her organisation and the French Development Agency were planning to commission a study into the impacts of nutrition programs.
Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia secretary-general Ken Loo said his association also supports these programs, but added there has been no recent progress in talks to implement an industry-wide initiative.
“We’ve always hoped brands would foot the bill,” he said. “But members have become sceptical that ultimately paying for the programs will become their responsibility.”
Dave Welsh, ACILS country manager, said his organisation, along with international NGOs and unions, will continue pushing for an industry-wide nutrition program.
“The unions are looking for something to rectify the minimum wage after it was far short of what they expected,” he said. “The government saying it is a good idea would go a long way to [putting pressure on] brands.”
Inside the Evergreen yard, food vendor Moung Sam Eng, 27, sells about 160 servings of food to workers each day. After paying $10 per month for more than two years to set up under shade inside, she now operates without any overheads.
“All in, this space has cost me $280,” she said.
One of the conditions of operating within the factory’s grounds, Sam Eng said, is she keeps her prices low.
“I cannot sell each item – rice and curry – for more than 500 riel, because the factory sets the price for the sellers who sell inside the factory, and the workers can buy anywhere they want,” she said, adding that she also has a pork dish she sells for 1,500 riel.
It might not be a perfect system, but Sar Rithy, human resources manager at Evergreen Industrial, said the system was designed to reduce cost for workers and to help workers avoid food that makes them sick.
“I want the workers to spend little on their food and for it to meet a good standard in sanitation,” Rithy said.
Even before the pay rise has come into effect, vendors in Evergreen’s yard have asked Rithy if they can raise prices, he said.
“I’ve discussed this with team leaders and unions. We decided we will talk to the workers after the increase – right now, I have asked vendors to keep the same prices.”
In a market outside, where workers have more choices for food, Evergreen’s rules don’t apply.
Food seller Mey Seoun, 48, said she is aware the workers will receive more money from next month and – in true entrepreneurial style – is not willing to let the opportunity to also benefit pass her by.
“I won’t increase my prices . . . but I will reduce the amount of food workers get with each serving when they get a new minimum wage,” she said.
Additional reporting by Danson Cheong