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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Minnie Driver stands with garment workers

Minnie Driver stands with garment workers

As the Hollywood A-List contemplates gowns for the Oscars, one

celebrity has focused her energy on garments of another kind.

British movie star Minnie Driver visited Cambodia to promote the rights of women

garment factory workers from January 31 to February 8. She conducted an eight day

fact-finding tour of the Cambodian and Thai garment industries. The tour was in support

of Oxfam International's Make Trade Fair Campaign and concluded with the global launch

of Oxfam International's new report, titled "Trading Away our rights: women

working in global supply chains."

Cham Prasidh, Minister of Commerce, was originally worried that Driver's visit could

be damaging to Cambodia if she did not understand the issues adequately.

His concerns were raised when an English tabloid quoted Driver saying she would stand

beside factory workers in Cambodia "for weeks, perhaps months," to address

the issue of "slave labor."

The comments were potentially damaging to Cambodia's garment industry, as it is attempting

to brand itself as a country that can guarantee good labor conditions and the absence

of sweatshops because of a unique monitoring system, developed by the International

Labour Organization (ILO).

At a February 8 press conference Driver said her comments were "badly reported

and taken completely out of context." The incident nonetheless indicated the

potential danger associated with involving high profile personalities in complex

issues.

Christelle Champoy from UNDP said: "Utilising celebrities can be a powerful

tool to help raise awareness of international audiences." She added that care

must be taken when using them. "It is important to use celebrities that are

really engaged and knowledgeable. If not, it can be dangerous."

Despite the risks, international organizations and aid agencies have a long history

of enlisting celebrities for fund and awareness raising. Leaders of NGOs, charities

and government officials are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the efforts of celebrities

to utilise their fame and focus world attention on important causes.

The UN is one international organization with a strong celebrity auxiliary. It utilises

around 40 celebrities through its Goodwill Ambassador and Messengers of Peace programs,

to capture world attention on an array of global issues.

Recently, Cambodia seems to have become a trendy destination for celebrities on missions.

Minnie Driver's visit follows in the footsteps of Sir Roger Moore, Sir Cliff Richard

and Angelina Jolie, who have all donated time, money and their name to raising awareness

of a variety of charities and causes in Cambodia.

Angelina Jolie is perhaps the most constant high profile donor. Jolie's involvement

in Cambodia arose after her starring role in Tomb Raider, which was filmed around

Angkor Wat. She has since demonstrated her commitment to Cambodian causes by donating

money to a variety of projects, including WildAid, Rose Charities and recently, the

Peace for Art project (see pages 8-9). She has also been a vocal advocate against

land mines as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. In October 2002, Jolie adopted a Cambodian

baby boy named Madox.

In her most recent contribution Jolie donated $1.5 million to an environmental conservation

program in Pailin and Battambang provinces.

Sir Cliff Richard, who works with a variety of charities across the globe, was in

Cambodia in January 2004 supporting, Christian NGO, Tearfund. The function of his

visit was to make a video for UK TV, to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. He visited

AIDS orphans who are part of the HALO project, which helps communities to care for

over 600 children affected by AIDS in Phnom Penh.

Sir Roger Moore, famous for his role as sexy spy James Bond, came to Cambodia in

October as chairman of UNICEF/ Kiwanis International Campaign to Eliminate Iodine

Deficiency Disorders (IDD).

His visit was a success. Two days before Moore's arrival, Prime Minister Hun Sen

passed a new sub-decree calling for all salt produced or imported into the country

to be iodised. Moore thanked the Royal Government of Cambodia for "taking a

giant step for Cambodians and for the future of Cambodia." As a token of appreciation

Moore, on behalf of UNICEF, presented the King with a 30 metric tonne pile of iodised

salt, for distribution.

Despite the initial hiccups, Driver's visit has since attracted as much praise as

other high profile visitors. Cham Prasidh said he was pleased with Driver's contribution

to the Cambodian garment industry. He referred to the actress as a "beauty with

a mission," and suggested that after her Oscar nominating role in Good Will

Hunting, her next movie should be titled "Good Will Job Creator."

"The very presence of Minnie Driver in Cambodia is serving the purpose of making

the heads of multinational corporations become responsible," he said. "With

celebrities like her... we can make [companies] understand it is time for them to

pay for the workers who are producing their products and not just pay the price they

want to pay."

Alex Renton, media and advocacy coordinator for Oxfam Great Britain in East Asia,

said Oxfam started the celebrity trend in Cambodia by bringing famous British actress

Julie Christy here in1988.

Her visit was labelled a "wild success" and cemented Oxfam's commitment

to celebrity involvement.

Minnie Driver said she was inspired to contribute to the Oxfam's Fair Trade campaign

by other celebrities including Chris Martin from Coldplay, English actress Helen

Mirren and Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, who have all been vocal in support

for the cause.

Renton admits there is always a risk in asking celebrities to be instant experts

and deal with global economics, but says Minnie Driver was well briefed before her

visit and in Cambodia by specialists from the ministry of Commerce, ILO and the Garment

Manufacturers Association of Cambodia. "She is a highly intelligent woman who

has a good grasp of the issues," he said.

Minnie Driver is the first to admit she didn't come here as an expert. "I am

not a global economist. I don't work for an NGO. I am a consumer and I came to Cambodia

in a massive state of ignorance," she said. She added that she didn't truly

understand the pressures faced by women until she travelled with Srey Neang, a 22-year-old

Phnom Penh garment worker, to her village in Prey Veng and met her family.

Driver says that after her experiences in Cambodia she will remain very much involved

with the issue and although she is unsure of her future role, she is realistic about

her contribution. "All I can do is talk about the issues." She said, "Fair

trade can happen, no matter how naive it may sound...its just about raising consciousness."

It is obvious that it is not only organizations taking risks by utilising high profile

names. Celebrities also take a gamble facing sceptics and plastering their names

on complex, sometimes not so sexy (iodised salt) issues.

Renton says Minnie Driver was very brave to venture to Cambodia. "As a celebrity

she has an image to protect, she is coming from a climate where people are very wary

of being caught with their face in the mud. To venture to Prey Veng where that is

precisely what she will do is very testing for her," he said. He added that,

"There is no commercial advantage of her to be here, she cancelled work to come."

Answering sceptics asking whether her visit was just another public relations campaign,

at the press conference, Driver gave a frank response: "You know what? If this

useless appendage of celebrity can be utilised, I don't really give a toss what people

think."

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