A 'Reality' check for top brands

A garment worker participating in a re-enactment of the violent January strikes on Veng Sreng Boulevard
A garment worker participating in a re-enactment of the violent January strikes on Veng Sreng Boulevard dons a military police officer costume as others get ready backstage in Phnom Penh. Charlotte Pert

A 'Reality' check for top brands

Ahead of this afternoon’s planned talks between government representatives and international fashion labels, garment workers toting riot gear and fake guns yesterday staged a re-enactment of January’s lethal crackdown on protesting workers at the start of the year.

As Cambodian pop songs blasted from a speaker, dozens of men and women acted out the violent clash, which took place on Veng Sreng Boulevard on January 2 and 3, before a crowd of hundreds at the Workers’ Information Center, a labour rights organisation in Tuol Kork.

The scene was part of a politically motivated fashion show titled "Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality", which also featured workers strutting down a catwalk clad in factory-produced dresses, jeans and sweatshirts. The show was intended to support the stalled campaign to raise the minimum wage to $160. Today the government will meet with major brands including H&M, Gap, Levi’s and Puma, as well as IndustriALL Global Union, to discuss garment worker rights and wages in the second round of talks between the parties.

“We want to show the gap between the salary of the worker and the salary of the brand owner,” said Chan Reaksmey from the Workers’ Information Centre, which organised the fashion event.

“But we also want to talk about the crackdown that happened on the workers in January,” she added.

At least four people were killed when military police opened fire during demonstrations on January 2 and 3, and last weekend Moun Sokmean, who was injured in the unrest, also died. Twenty-three protesters accused of inciting violence during the riots are embroiled in an ongoing legal battle.

During yesterday’s performance at the Workers’ Information Centre, male garment workers wearing riot gear faced their female counterparts, who were kitted out in white headbands with $160 written on, and slowly rocked back and forth en masse. One woman fell to the ground and a young boy sat next to her, screaming.

Garment workers walk down a runway in branded clothing
Garment workers walk down a runway in branded clothing. Garment sector employees are asking for a minimum wage of $160 per month. Charlotte Pert

John Sophea, a 26-year-old factory employee who played the part of one of the military police, said he hoped the performance would deliver the message to brand owners that the authorities had used violence. During January’s demonstrations, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito defended the use of force, saying that it was necessary to maintain security.

“We want to show how the soldiers used violence against the workers – to send this message out to the brands and also the government,” Sophea said.

Before the re-enactment, female garment workers took to a catwalk to model the same products they are employed to make. The clothes, bought at the local market by the Workers’ Information Centre, belonged to brands such as those meeting today.

During the runway show, models held up placards describing their working conditions in English and Khmer: “Tiny unhygienic rented rooms”; “Unsafe environment”; “Forced overtime” and “No access to higher education”. Later they swapped these for placards with demands: “Drop ban on public gatherings”; “Stop short-term contracts and exploitation of workers” and “Rice not bullets”.

Lin Na, 22, who took part in the catwalk, works at Evergreen Apparel (Cambodia). She said for a basic salary of $100 per month, she works from 7am until 4pm five or six days per week, and works overtime until 7pm almost every day.

“The salary is not fair compared to the work we do,” she said, wearing a Puma sweatshirt.

“I’m wearing the brands to show the buyers that their clothes are made by us. I want them to understand the link between the clothes I make and the garment workers’ situation and our salaries.”

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