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Tough times for working women

CAMBODIAN working women are more likely to be hurt by investment and development

programs than their male counterparts, according to collective research by women's

groups and labor rights organizations.

A report by the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) and the human rights

group Licahdo highlights that Khmer women disproportionally juggle the responsibilities

of being breadwinners and domestic laborers.

The study, partly based on 1,000 surveys of working women, notes that, "in every

sector except government service, women make up over 50 percent of the workforce."

Citing findings from the Khmer Women's Voice Center, it states that "Cambodian

women make up 60 percent of the agricultural workforce, 85 percent of the business

(including informal sector) workforce, 70 percent of the industrial workforce, and

60 percent of all service sector workers."

Mu Sochua, advisor on women's affairs to the First Prime Minister, explains that

the number of women in the workforce is partly due to Cambodia's legacy of wars and

family separation.

"Cambodian women are now heads of households... and main breadwinners. More

than 30 percent of Cambodian women are headed by women. Therefore they have to change

their role - they are not only mothers but they are also [paid workers] and they

are thrown into this role without any type of preparation," she notes.

The 87th International Women's Day Conference in Phnom Penh explored other challenges

facing Cambodian women, including the educational discrepancy between men and women.

A commonly-cited statistic is that 80 percent of Cambodian women are illiterate (as

opposed to 50-60 percent of men).

"Because of their lack of proper education, women are not well trained, especially

in special skills ... which [makes] them very limited in hiring positions in upper

management," Sochua says.

AAFLI and Licadho note that "women predominate the lowest paying jobs in Cambodian

society," often forcing them to take two or more jobs and pursue migratory labor

between agricultural seasons.

The report also highlights abuses experienced by many working women. They include:

discriminatory hiring of young girls over older women, firings due to pregnancy (or

lack of maternity pay), and docked pay due to refusing overtime.

In the worst cases, Cambodian women plagued with debt and unable to free themselves

through independent careers are forced into bonded labor, including indentured servitude

and prostitution, the report says.

Many women face a cycle of debt as they borrow cash to try to escape poverty. A UNICEF

report says that 42 percent of Cambodian women have debt either in cash or in kind.

If the money comes from private money-lenders, interest rates range from 2,000-4,000

riels per month for a 10,000 riel loan. Sochua asserts that such small loans, with

high interest rates, leave women stuck in an irremediable situation of debt.

She adds that the problem could be reversed through the allocation of mid-range loans

and the promotion of worker-cooperative programs that target women by government

and NGO programs. Labor advocates also claim that investment programs could indeed

reverse this trend if increased wages would allow women to increase their purchasing

power.

But critics fear that because Cambodian women represent the greater part of the workforce,

they will be more vulnerable to investment and development programs - especially

those which propose cutting the size of the public sector.

They say that women are likely to bear a high proportion of lost government jobs,

thanks to discriminatory retirement provisions.

Women's advocates charge that if investment programs are not coupled with skills

training and job opportunity programs for women, female workers will likely face

greater adversities in the new labor market.

As Sochua notes, "Cambodia is moving towards a very fast path of industrial

development...to catch up with the region. With an unskilled workforce we will be

faced with the exploitation of women."

Observers note that given the prevalence of women in the workforce - compounded with

the challenges they face with deficient education and capital - women workers are

expected to be forced into the forefront of the labor movement.

Labor advocates are optimistic that gains will be made by working women. They cite

the concessions that have been won by women in the rapidly growing garment industry,

who comprise 90 percent of the workforce.

Ou Mary, president of the Free Trade Union of the Kingdom of Cambodia, says that

unions will help women workers to improve their economic conditions.

"[Through unions] we have lobbied to implement a labor law, we have lobbied

the factory owners to pay a minimum wage of $50 a month ... and we have filed lawsuits,"

she said. She continued that she supports investment programs as long as it is linked

with respect for the labor law.

However, some critics assert that the labor law will poorly protect Cambodian working

women. Examples of gender bias that are often cited include: the inequality of rice

allocation between men and women in the rural sectors, weak provisions against sexual

harassment, the omission of domestic workers from the law's coverage, and the meager

maternity pay.

Camille Cameron, deputy director of the Cambodian Court Training Project concedes

that: "There are ways in which the law is directly and indirectly gender exclusive,"

but adds that it also contains important rights such as the right to form trade unions.

Sochua asserts that beyond legislation, continued vigilance is the only way for women

to secure their gains: "Women in a civil society have to be the pressure if

we expect things to change for the people. Laws are not going to make much difference

... If there is no pressure from [women's groups] the government will take a very

lax position."

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