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A top alternative to garment factories

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An employee of the Rachana Handicrafts prepares to iron some silk.

SEVERAL women are working in a small room inside the compound of Prey Chhlak Pagoda. One is stitching some silk elephants on a second-hand sewing machine while another is designing some clothes.

The room exudes a sense of calm in keeping with its spiritual setting.

Tith Sitha, 25, has worked for Rachana Handicrafts for four years. Today, she is preparing a small elephant that is destined for export to either Japan or the United States.

“It is not hard work,” she says. “For me it was easy to learn the skills.” Each month the team makes about 500 elephants, which they sell for US$1.50 each. The seamstress receives $50 per month.

Beside her, Prom Ratha, 35, is training a student in design. She earns slightly more than her colleague, taking home $65 due to her training duties.

Prom Ratha used to work at a footwear factory. When the factory went bankrupt, she designed hats from home for two years. She started working for Rachana at its inception in 2003. She prefers her current work to that at the factory.

“Here the time is freer and they never cut our salary if we are sick,” she says. “Work in factories is harder, but here also work can be hard when we have a rush order and we don’t have any time to relax.”

Her student, Kert Chanthoun, 22, also likes working at Rachana. She started training at the organisation as long ago as 2004. For her, the fact that her salary is not docked each time she is sick is an important consideration.

“I came to study and quit, came to study and quit, because of health problems,” she says. “I cannot count how many times I have come here.”

This time Kert Chanthoun is determined to make a success of it. “I will not quit again,” she says. “I want to be a designer.”

If she fails, Kert Chanthoun will most probably have to work in one of the many garment factories in the province, a prospect she does not look forward to. “If we live here we go to the factory, but they don’t have design ... it’s just sewing,” she says.

Meas Vanny, 32, has managed the Svay Rieng branch since 2007. Supported by donors between 2003 and 2005, the organisation has been self-supporting since then. Its current income is about $400 per month.

“It’s almost 100 percent export. We rarely sell within Cambodia, only at exhibitions,” she says.

Materials are bought from Phnom Penh and the stuffing is collected from villages in the province. “The small items such as the elephants are made from silk, but the bigger items are made from cotton,” she says.

Before joining Rachana in 2003 as a seamstress, Meas Vanny sold vegetables in the market. She feels the organisation in general and herself could benefit from further training.

“I lack experience,” she says. “I want to know how to manage my organisation better. I have attended workshops in the past, but I want training in management skills.” TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY

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