Garment workers leave their factory on the outskirts on Phnom Penh for their lunch break. Cambodia’s efforts to eliminate sweatshops should be better recognized by the international community, argues Rachel Louise Snyder in her new book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.
Cambodia leads the world’s developing
nations in eradicating sweatshop conditions in the garment manufacturing industry,
and if this industry were to fail here it would be a blow in the global battle
A contentious view perhaps, but that’s the belief
firmly held by Phnom Penh-based author Rachel Louise Snyder, who spent almost
three years traveling the world researching the global garment industry for her
book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and
Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade.
The book was recently published in the United States
and is about to be published in almost a dozen other countries.
original hometown newspaper, the Chicago
Tribune, gave her work a glowing review, saying, "The strongest passages in
the book come from Cambodia,
where Snyder lives.
tells the stories of Ry and Nat, two women who are part of Cambodia’s
experiment to improve working conditions as its garment industry grows. A
bilateral agreement with the Clinton
administration tied the size of Cambodia’s
export quota to efforts to eradicate sweatshops.
worked, but recent pressures from the expiration of worldwide trade quotas
provoke fear in Cambodia
that its fledgling industry could be shut out by cheaper countries that don't
pay workers as much.”
who has just returned to Phnom Penh after a busy
US book tour, told the Post
groundbreaking attempts to stave off developing nation sweatshop conditions in
its garment industry "seemed to me to be important and something that should be written about.”
Snyder first came to Cambodia as a backpacker in 1996
and returned in 2003 to write about the Khmer Rouge tribunals for US magazine The New
But the government, and the tribunal, went into an 11-month
stall shortly after Snyder moved here with her husband, a former British
military commando, so she turned her attention to the garment industry.
"In the interim I found that the garment industry was
in some ways a far more interesting topic to write about. At least something
was happening with it, put it that way,” she said.
She compiled a half-hour segment for a US
public radio show, This American Life. That piece won her an Overseas Press Award and in turn that
landed her a contract to write the book for US publisher W.W. Norton &
She said that when she started her investigations into
the global garment industry, she realized that the Cambodian sector had a
unique position within developing nations.
"It quickly became obvious to me that what was
happening in Cambodia
had much more significant ramifications than just within its own borders here.
"If this country’s manufacturing base fails, that’s
significant because it’s the only developing country in the world that has
attempted to across the board eradicate sweatshops – it’s the only one.
Author Rachel Louise Snyder reads from her book Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade at her home in Phnom Penh, March 5.
"There are definitely problems in the industry here,
and they have cropped up more and more in the past year. But if this government
allows the garment industry to fail because they can’t get rid of the
corruption and the red tape, and they cannot keep the sweatshops out, I do then
think it speaks volumes for what hope we have for the rest of the manufacturing
nations, the other 59 manufacturing countries around the world, many of which
"That seemed to me to be important and something that
should be written about.”
She said the irony of the Cambodian garment industry
is that while it is a relatively sweatshop-free industry, it is perceived in
countries like the US
as the archetypal sweatshop country.
"I’ve heard references to Cambodian sweatshops in TV
sitcoms,” she said. "There is that assumption.”
In October 2003, American actress Minnie Driver said
she would spend "weeks, perhaps months” toiling alongside workers in Cambodian
sweatshops to "help raise standards, pay and conditions of
employment in developing countries."
Snyder said, "I
remember when Minnie Driver came here to protest sweatshops and there was a big
public relations to-do about it. I kept thinking this is not the country for
that. This is the country that is trying to eradicate sweatshops.
"They could have gone to Jordan, which just had huge, huge
problems with indentured servitude in its manufacturing. They could have gone
where last fall they were outed for having child labor.
"But instead they came here, to Cambodia.
"The assumption that Cambodia is a sweatshop nation is
just not counter-balanced by the other side, which is that there are people who
are trying to do things the right way here.
"The Cambodian system is not a perfect system but
you’ve got to support the attempt anyway.”