Of Cambodia's nearly half a million garment workers, 90 per cent are women. Their unions have played a major role in Cambodian politics recently as their demand for a $160 monthly minimum wage has become a rallying cry for the opposition.
But those unions are dominated by men, creating a situation that one expert has termed “a woman’s movement under male leadership”.
Among the six major union federations, there is just one run entirely by women at the top level: the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), which has 25,000 members across 32 factories. Morn Nhim, a middle-aged former garment worker, is its president and founder.
She and other women who have risen to the top ranks agree that they are better equipped to respond to women’s unique needs, such as maternity leave, breastfeeding and sexual harassment.
“Women know each others’ problems, so we choose women to represent the workers,” she said in an interview at NIFTUC’s headquarters.
Nhim began her career in the garment sector in 1997 during the industry’s early years. Workers were far less organised than they are today, with the Cambodia Labour Organisation (CLO), a labour rights NGO which shut down in 2005, providing the bulk of support.
“There were no NGOs or unions like [today], but one of the NGO officers from CLO came to train the workers about the laws and the working conditions, and I saw that I should work for workers because there was too much pressure from the employers, and the workers appointed me to be a representative.”
She launched NIFTUC in 1999 with help from CLO, but the two organisations fell out over what Nhim said was a lack of CLO’s respect for a female-run union.
“At the time they had discrimination – they felt they could not trust women with money,” said Nhim, adding that CLO always maintained direct control over the funds it donated to NIFTUC
Nuon Veasna, co-author of the 2012 book Building Unions in Cambodia: History, Challenges, Strategies, said that although women are well-represented in local union leadership, they comprise less than 10 per cent of the top labour federation leaders.
“Representation should be predominately women. We have seen few cases like that, but very few,” he said.
In the hospitality industry, for example, activists say that extensive female participation has led to more women-friendly unions.
Phol Sophea, deputy director of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation (CFSWF) in Siem Reap province, said that the food and service industry unions take better care than the garment unions in addressing women’s concerns. A former beer promoter, she joined the union in 2010 after being raped by a customer.
“[CFSWF] is kind of similar to other unions in town, but my union can deeply solve problems for women more than the garment unions. Garment unions mostly help in demanding salaries but not helping conflicts or rape cases such as mine.”
Sophea said that awareness of widespread gender discrimination discourages many women from pursuing leadership roles in unions or other sectors of society.
“Women in Cambodia still do not get enough rights to work the same as men yet. It is 100 per cent true and it is really difficult for women who want to be leaders. These points lead to women being reluctant to study or to get higher education the same as men.”
She added that 10 of the top leaders in CFSWF are women, although the president in Phnom Penh is male.
Yang Sophorn, who is the president of Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), which represents some 7,000 members in 21 factories, said there is a cultural problem that discourages women from taking the top jobs in garment unions.
Her organisation, with NIFTUC and four others, is taking the lead in the demand for a $160 monthly minimum wage. While she prefers to put female workers in leadership roles, she believes men are “braver” about taking on the risks, which include sacking, arrest, injury and death during confrontations with authorities.
“I know some women who I want to be leaders, because those women know the situation of the women inside the factory. But they are not brave enough to be the leaders,” she said.
Women tend to take their cues from their families, who are hesitant for their daughters, sisters and wives to take on the potentially dangerous roles, said Sophorn. Her own family was nervous but understanding when she became a leader in 2000, she added.
Nhim agreed, adding that Cambodian society does not encourage women to be courageous. The situation, however, is improving, she said.
“Now the women are becoming brave enough to be leaders, but there are still not enough.”