In 2000, Try Suphearac first walked through the doors of Wat Than Artisans Cambodia, a worker-run cooperative of artisans with disabilities and handicraft boutique, inside the gilded Norodom Boulevard pagoda complex. Then in his early twenties, he’d previously worked long hours in a saw mill and had lost his left leg in a horrific accident. Like many physically disabled people, Suphearac felt embarrassed and discriminated against. When the NGO that set up the workshop decided to pull out, Suphearac, with the help of his staff and students, stepped up to make sure the mission to provide training and employment for physically disabled people carried on. Laura Walters talked to Suphearac, now CEO of the organisation, about the issues disabled people in Cambodia face, landmines and where he hoped to take the project in the future.
How did you come to run Wat Than Artisans Cambodia?
The centre was established by Maryknoll-Wat Than for Landmine and Polio Disabled in Phnom Penh, but in 2003 the organisation decided to turn their focus to HIV projects, so the students and staff at Wat Than decided to start our own independent co-operative. When we started [on our own], it was a very hard time. The income generation went down to zero and we lost the trust of our customers. We had to produce the capital to buy the entire inventory. We are still working towards becoming self-sustainable, but things are much better.
I was trained at Wat Than as a fine wood carver, and then in the office. I lost my leg in an accident and I felt the same as the other [disabled workers]. I didn’t want to go out. I felt like people thought I was begging [to] them. This job gave me a new life. We had the thought, if we did not continue it would disappear, and we would lose support for people with disabilities. I grew up here and my life is better because of this.
What are the stories behind the people who are trained, and work, at Wat Than Artisans?
Almost all of the people with disabilities who work here had problems with landmines, or some other accident after they were born. Some of them fell out of trees, or off buildings, or have polio, or eye problems. We found that most of them, almost all of them, were facing massive problems. They left their families because they could not contribute, or work on the farm. [Disabled people] have very little support in Cambodia. Before they came here they just stayed at home and ate and slept. They were not interested in doing other things. They did not go to school, and some of them did not have the support they needed, like a wheel chair, to move around. They came here and they see other people with disabilities, in the same situation as them, and they felt that they could do the same thing. Everyone here is very supportive of each other.
Recently three United States Marines were seriously injured while deactivating landmines in Cambodia – do you believe incidents like this remind the international community how far we have to go with the problem in Cambodia?
I think that not everyone in the international community knows about our problem with landmines. I think the landmine problem is slowly getting better, but it will take a long time to solve the problem entirely.
What do workers and students do at Wat Than?
We provide training in fine wood carving and sewing to people with disabilities. During their year-long training we support them financially. A lot of our producers and students come from other provinces in Cambodia, and if they do not have somewhere to live during their training, we provide a bed for them. When they finish their training they have the option of either working with us, or working [for us] from their home provinces, or for other organisations. Some work part of the year at Wat Than, and go home to help on the farm during the rice season. Our workers produce a range of fair-trade products which are sold in Phnom Penh and around the world. Recently we have had many able-bodied people approach us for work and training. I think it is because here things are friendlier.
What are the challenges physically disabled people face when trying to find work in Cambodia?
Because they are physically disabled in terms of moving and production, it is hard for people with disabilities to find employment. Cambodian employers’ opinions of disabled people are becoming a bit better though… but I don’t know how long it will take for things to change, and for legislation to be passed, which supports disabled people in the work place. In Cambodia people feel like it is not good luck to work with people with disabilities.
How do you fund the project?
Very recently some international organisations have become aware of what we do. But now our main focus is more on the sales. We really want to become a sustainable social enterprise. The cost of our products is higher than products produced in sweat shops. But I feel people in Cambodia are starting to hear about free trade products, very slowly.
How do the people who work, or study, at Wat Than Artisans Cambodia feel about their new lives?
They are more than happy to get this new life. After working for one or two years they become an important member of the family. They send money home to help their family get what they need to grow rice. They are happy to contribute to their families.
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Walters at [email protected]