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Mind the wage gap

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Garment workers eat a spartan dinner of noodles outside a cluster of factories in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post

Most mornings, garment worker Vicheka buys food from the street vendors outside her factory in Kampong Chhnang province. The beef and pork dishes, she says, have a tendency to give workers a stomach ache – a reputation forged long before Vicheka and her co-workers at the M&V factory fainted on the job this month.

It’s not unusual for the food to spend hours in the sun’s searing heat. More often than not, it’s unhygienic and it always tastes bad.

Its allure, however, is that it’s cheap.

“I make a low wage,” the 20-year-old, who has been working in the factory making clothing for H&M for three years, says. “I simply can’t spend money on good food. It’s too expensive.”

In the past week, Clean Clothes Campaign activists have been staging mock faintings in fashion stores across Europe to draw attention to the conditions Cambodian workers endure while sewing for big brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi’s.

CCC’s campaign makes the point that “poverty pay” and malnutrition contribute to mass faintings. A simple and straightforward solution, it says, is to pay Cambodian workers a living wage – the minimum amount of money someone needs to meet their basic needs.

According to the union and labour group Asia Floor Wage Alliance, this figure should be $281 a month. Even with a $10 increase approved by the government that will kick in this month, the minimum wage for garment workers is $83.

With Cambodia’s garment industry burgeoning – exports topped $1 billion during the first quarter of this year – big brands have an obligation to bridge this wage gap, Carin Leffler, co-ordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign Norway, says.

“A number of actors are profiting from really low wages and low prices of clothes,” she says. “It’s important to make it clear the labour cost in a typical piece of clothing makes up one to three per cent of its retail price.”

Brands and consumers should also be prepared to pay more for products – money that should flow down to the workers, she says. “The worker at the bottom of the supply chain have paid enough in terms of extremely long hours, dangerous working conditions, bad housing and poor occupational health,” Leffler says. “Workers have the right to a decent living.”

Since pushing the idea of a living wage during a “people’s forum” in Phnom Penh in February, Anannya Bhattacharjee, international co-ordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, has had little response from brands. “We’re open to dialogue with the brands as far as what the steps are to closing this gap . . . They’re claiming to be doing their own research. But so far, not a single brand has sat down with us,” she says.

“The brands are paying a certain price to suppliers. That price is relatively low. We’re saying the brands need to increase prices . . . [and] compensate the industry, so that workers are paid the Asia Floor [living] wage.”

A spokesman for Asia-Pacific Levi Strauss & Co says the company is concerned for its workers and is exploring how conditions can be improved. “We are working with industry, government and NGOs to address worker rights and worker well-being in Cambodia,” she says.

“Our company works with governments, unions, industry associations and other stakeholders who are trying to determine how to achieve a living wage and improve workers’ standard of living.”

Gap and H&M did not respond to email inquiries from the Post about whether paying workers in their source factories a living wage was a priority.

Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia Secretary-General Ken Loo could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he has told the Post in the past that many garment workers take home $150 per month after factoring in bonuses and overtime wages and that there are numerous calculations for determining a living wage.

Former garment worker Soramy has bid goodbye to her friends and moved out of the rickety, leaking hut she called home for 12 years while working at a Tai Yang Enterprises factory in Kandal province.

Mixed emotions have accompanied her return to her native Kampong Speu province: she’s relieved she no longer shares a floor with eight others when she sleeps at night, but she’s disheartened she never earned enough to adequately provide for her widowed mother.

“The whole time I was a garment worker, not once did I have nice food to eat,” she says. “All I could afford was 500 to 1,000 riel per meal. I ate to fill my stomach, but it was far from nutritious.”

Many garment workers live in shabby residences around their workplaces. Rent and food prices in these areas have a tendency to rise when wages do. “Most live in a small room crammed with others,” Cambodian Labour Confederation president Ath Thorn says. “The roofs leak, their blankets and pillows are dirty and their beds are the floor. They eat in the same place, this is life for a garment worker.”

Thorn advocates a $280 per month living wage, but realises such a payment for the hundreds of thousands of workers in the industry could be a long time coming. “Another study in 2009 showed that workers need at least $120 per month to support a family of four,” he says. “Three years on, that figure should be about $200. We must work towards this.”

The short-term answer for workers could lie in other initiatives that don’t involve immediate pay rises, according to Dave Welsh, American Center for International Labor Solidarity country manager. Although a $280 living wage is perfectly reasonable, he says, unfortunately for now, it’s “pie-in-the-sky stuff”.

His organisation will continue talking with major brands about a plan to have them sponsor an industry-wide food project that would provide meals to workers. “This would eliminate about 65 per cent of their expenditure, taking them out of inflationary pressure,” Welsh says.

Small wage rises make the government look good, he says, but quite often, landlords and food vendors in “company-town-like structures” around factories raise their prices to correspond with the workers’ having extra money. “That could be addressed by subjecting landlords to price controls,” he says.

Vicheka and her colleagues who fainted at work early this month are less concerned about how change occurs, but they are holding out for something that allows them to eat properly.

“I know I would not have fainted if I ate good food,” she says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phonmpenhpost.com
Mom Kunthear at kunthear.mom@phnompenhpost.com

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