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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Garment workers stuck trying to stitch together a home

A simple pork dinner suffices for garment worker Yem Chhailim’s house near Phnom Penh. She sends most of her wages back to her home province and spends just $30 on rent.
A simple pork dinner suffices for garment worker Yem Chhailim’s house near Phnom Penh. She sends most of her wages back to her home province and spends just $30 on rent. Heng Chivoan

Garment workers stuck trying to stitch together a home

Garment workers in Cambodia face extreme hardship in their private rented accommodation, as they struggle to provide for their families in the provinces.

Where some factories in Cambodia provide accommodation for their workers, others must shift for themselves in the local rental market. With the official minimum wage set at $153 a month, margins for many workers are so tight that they skimp on their housing so they can afford the basics.

Cambodia’s manufacturing sector, mostly located in and around the capital, has created hundreds of thousands of jobs since the mid-1990s. Garment factories receive a steady flow of new workers, many of whom are women from the country’s outlying provinces.

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A child negotiates the rickety walkway at Chhailim’s home. Heng Chivoan

Yem Chhailim, aged 35, comes from Prey Veng province near the Vietnamese border. She spends just $30 dollars a month on a tiny shotgun shack surrounded by piles of rotting garbage in Chakangre Leu commune. It’s about a kilometer from the factory where she works, on National Road 1.

Chhailim has worked in garment factories for 20 years. She spoke of her daily life, “I’ve been living and working as a factory worker for nearly 20 years, but my life is not good because I decided to live in cheap room.”

Chhailim earns a basic wage of $153 and sends $100 of this to her family in the province: $70 for her five-year-old daughter and her son aged six, and $30 for her mother, who looks after them. Her decision to spend just $30 on monthly rent was dictated by these hardship numbers. She can earn extra money doing overtime, but rarely takes home more than $200 each month.

Her journey home ends at a rickety boardwalk raised above the rotting garbage and stagnant water. Still, the home she shares with her husband, 36-year-old Vinh Sienghout, is much better than her former residence, a “rented” mosquito net in a room full of other workers, which cost her five USD a month.

Talking to Post Property as she prepared a meal in her zinc-roofed tumbledown room, Chhailim said, “We spend about $30 living in this small room, which is not strong enough under the rain and sun. The garbage thrown at the bottom of the house smells, too.”

She’s relieved to be out of her former dormitory mosquito net accommodation, however. “Back then I was worried that when it rained, it might have flooded. Some workers were in even worse accommodation than me.

“I always wanted a big wooden house to live with my family in my hometown, but I have not been able to do so yet,” she added. “The life here is hard, but the people are friendly, so it seems a bit like my home town.”

“I always dream that each factory could provide comfortable living space for workers, but since I’ve been working, almost 20 years in this factory, I haven’t ever had a good place to stay.”

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Yem Chhailim outside the compound where she lives with the constant smell of garbage in a six-meter-square shack. Heng Chivoan

Few garment workers have the funds to rent a room that is properly constructed and clean. Some get accommodation at the factory itself, but many have to find their own room and spend their own money doing so. They often rent the cheapest available so they can maximize their remittances home.

CheaSokLeang, aged 42, a garment worker at a different factory in Chakangre Leu commune and also comes from Prey Veng province. He told Post Property: “I would love to live comfortably in a decent rented house with a bathroom and plenty of space, but it’s hard for low income people like us.”

Sieng Ny, a landlord in Kien Svay district said she rents 20 rooms at $40 a month each for garment workers nearby. She added, “I try to build large, en-suite bedrooms with separate bathrooms, because sanitation and security are important for these workers.”

She said that although her rooms did not meet normal construction standards, her rooms were better than other places.”I know the standard of construction and I want to help the workers have a standard living space, but they don’t have the capacity to rent a high-end room at all,” she adds.

Yang Sophorn, President of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), said that garment workers were still struggling to find good housing, hygienic food, and decent conditions for their families. “Some factories provide accommodation for garment workers, but some large factories don’t have these facilities yet, which makes it difficult for workers who work overtime and who have little security on their way home. Most of them share bathrooms, which can cause a lack of hygiene.”

Sophorn said that in order to provide workers with decent accommodation, the government or the landlords should think of constructing large-scale housing with clean bathrooms. She said that sometimes even factory-provided housing can be out of reach for workers who are charged rent:“We still have problems with the living conditions of workers because when the owners build on-site accommodation, workers are not able to afford to rent as well as their living expenses.

Workers’ salaries have increased, but their purchasing power has declined due to higher prices. Generally, the unions have helped them to a better working and living standard.Sophorn added, however, that government housing law needs to be implemented more firmly. “We have a rental contract law on housing standards, but I don’t think it is implemented in practice, and they don’t seem to understand the wording of the law announced by the Ministry of Labour” she said.

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