Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Chinese/Khmer divide in factories

The Chinese/Khmer divide in factories

The Chinese/Khmer divide in factories


In the garment industry the low-paid workers are ethnic Khmer; the high-paid supervisors


Most of Cambodia's garment factories have a firmly established hierarchy: a management

team is the top tier of supervision under which are the quality controllers, supervisors,

and finally, the workers.

Khmer garment factory workers gather outside the gates of the Zheng Yong Garment Factory on Russian Boulevard on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Most of Cambodia's garment factories are owned by companies headquartered in China or Taiwan, and the overwhelming majority of managers are from those countries.

With the exception of a small number of other Asian nationalities, Cambodians and

ethnic and expatriate Chinese comprise the two main labor groups in the country's

roughly 300,000-strong textile trade workforce.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia,

estimates that there are about 30,000 Chinese from China, including Hong Kong, working

in the garment sector.

But according to factory executives and labor union leaders, , the division between

blue-collar and white-collar workers is drawn brazenly, and unfairly, along clearly

defined ethnic lines.

And although the importance of the Chinese role in the garment industry is indisputable,

the gap between Chinese management and supervisors and ethnic Khmer laborers has

some industry insiders blasting the existing corporate structure as disrespectful,

discriminatory and even, at times, racist.

"From my observations 99 percent of supervisors are Chinese," said Ath

Thun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions (CCAWDU).

"In the past, I acknowledge that it was fair to choose Chinese as supervisors

because at the time we didn't have enough skill. But now, we have enough skill, the

same as the Chinese. Today, even when they select Cambodian supervisors, they are

still paid less then the Chinese. I think it is racism."

According to the International Labour Organization, the garment industry is one of

Cambodia's main revenue sources. It accounts for around 12 percent of Cambodia's

gross domestic product (GDP) and makes up almost 80 percent of all Cambodia's exports.

Sixty-five percent of the roughly 270,000-member manufacturing labor force works

in the more than 200 garment factories in the country.

The factories, mostly in Phnom Penh and near the port of Sihanoukville, are mainly

owned by companies based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan - although Malaysian and

Singaporean firms are also invested in the sector. In 2005, over 71 percent of garment

exports were shipped to the United States, and 22 percent to Europe.

"Cambodia can attract garment investments because it had a quota to the US before

- but it has no industrial base and the people have limited skills," Wong Swie-Hwa,

vice chairwoman of the China Hong Kong and Macau Expatriate and Business Association

of Cambodia, told the Post on June 9.

"Cambodians are lazy and their productivity is low, but their quality is rising,"

she said.

Wong said the US buyers usually place orders with Hong Kong garment trading agencies,

then the Hong Kong agents deliver the orders to the factories in Cambodia.

The factory owners employ many Chinese as supervisors and technicians because they

are generally inexpensive and have more experience, she said.

"Another important reason for employing Chinese nationals is that they share

a common language with owners from Hong Kong and other Chinese-speaking countries,"

Wong said. "Employers find it hard to communicate with Cambodians because they

cannot speak Cantonese or Mandarin."

Chinese supervisors often earn US$500 a month, while Cambodians in the same position

receive half that. But in addition to their salary the Chinese may have their living

expenses paid for them and get air tickets for trips back home.

'Chinese employees deserve more'

"Chinese employees deserve more because they have to leave their country to

work here," Wong said. "The employers also pay their food, lodging and

air tickets to home."

CCAWDU's Thun said that based on 2004 figures, Cambodian supervisors were paid only

$150 to $200, while Chinese received $400 to $500.

Loo said Chinese nationals play a big role in the Cambodian garment industry.

According to Loo, Cambodian workers can learn from the Chinese nationals "who

were experienced in the garment trade." After all, he said, the garment and

textile trade has been thriving for many years in China.

"The Chinese mainly differ in the fact that they are more experienced and that

they are usually more hard-working," Loo said. "They have left their homeland

and ventured overseas to come to Cambodia hoping to earn more money."

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, estimates that Cambodians represent

less than 25 percent of the garment industry's management and mid-management positions.

He concedes that Chinese are selected to overhead positions because of their skill,

but he blames employers for failing to advance qualified Cambodians. Mony said that

since he became involved in garment sector labor unions, he has not seen a single

factory train its workers for managerial positions.

"We are very polite: we always respect our duties, but we are not recognized

for being able to work in other areas of production," Mony said. "They

do not wish to talk to us, so the gap between us is wide."

A range of interviews conducted by the Post in Cantonese and Mandarin with Chinese

and Taiwanese factory executives revealed negative attitudes towards Cambodian employees.

"Cambodians cannot work in high positions as we do because they are backward

and not educated enough," said Wu Lim-houng, a merchandiser from Shandong, China,

who has worked in Phnom Pneh since 2002. "They do not know how to supervise."

'Lower-ranking workers Cambodians'

Wu's factory employs 7,000 to 8,000 workers, and most of them are Cambodians. About

5,000 of them work from 6am to 3pm, while the rest work from 3pm to 11pm. He said

garment factories generally require at least 500 employees, and some need as many

as 10,000.

"Eighty to ninety percent of all supervisors are Chinese, and the lower-ranking

workers are Cambodians," Wu said.

Wu said the Cambodians usually earn $45 a month, with a $5 bonus if they are neither

late nor absent. If a Cambodian works overtime, the salary may reach $70 to $80.

"Labour Law in Cambodia limits overtime to two hours a day, but most factories

do not follow," Wu said. "Almost every worker works three to four hours


An ILO report said the frequency and duration of overtime remain an issue in most

factories. More than two thirds of the factories surveyed did not limit overtime

to two hours per day.

Merchandisers like Wu can earn as much as $700 a month. When their experience accumulates,

it can top $1,000.

"Chinese usually make a better living than Cambodians. Certainly we can earn

more than if we stay in China, otherwise we would not choose to stay here,"

Wu said.

A Chinese quality-assurance supervisor, Amy Yu, agrees that salary is the main incentive

to work in Cambodia. Yu was hired in 2003, by her aunt who works as a garment factory

manager. .

In Yu's department, a Cambodian assistant makes $60 to $70 a month. Yu receives $400.

"Cambodians are very hard to manage - they are not responsible and lazy,"

said Yu, who said she tells Cambodians everything she knows. "The standard of

Cambodians is low, and their thinking is old-fashioned."

Chinese citizen Li Zu-mei was attracted by better pay in Cambodia. She got her job

as a quality-controller from a longtime friend.

"My employers pay my lodging and food," Li said. "They also buy me

round-trip air tickets back home. That's why I've been here from Jiangsu in China

for three years."

Li said most quality controllers are Chinese. Some of them work for more than one

factory, and she works for two now in order to make more money.

"I save money for home, and I can save more in Cambodia because my bosses pay

my living expenses and work visa," Li said. "I almost don't have any expenses."

Cambodian workers are not so fortunate. According to ILO research, most garment workers

are poor, young women from the provinces with little education. Many live in overcrowded

lodging, have little money for food, and send a large portion of their salaries home

to their families each month.

"We make only $50 a month, but we have to spend $47 on living expenses,"

Mony said. "It is very hard and life is no good."

According to Alonzo Suson, country forum director for the American Center for International

Labor Solidarity, the Chinese management style has yet to warm to labor unions.

"It's about cultural values and treatment. They don't know how to deal with

unions," Suson said. "They come from a country where the workforce is controlled.

They come here and say 'Wait a second - these workers have rights?'"

Suson urged factory owners to train more Cambodian supervisors.

"The Chinese factory owners bring in their own people, that has been identified

as a problem," he said. "They don't employ local managers. Putting that

practice into place here can seem disrespectful."

"If I were in union shoes, I'd be calling for an upgrading of skills."


  • Joy as Koh Ker Temple registered by UNESCO

    Cambodia's Koh Ker Temple archaeological site has been officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, during the 45th session of the World Heritage Committee held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on September 17. The ancient temple, also known as Lingapura or Chok Gargyar, is located in

  • Ream base allegations must end, urges official

    A senior government official urges an end to the allegations and suspicions surrounding the development of Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base, now that Prime Minister Hun Manet has addressed the issue on the floor of the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78). Jean-Francois Tain, a geopolitical

  • Cambodia set to celebrate Koh Ker UNESCO listing

    To celebrate the inscription of the Koh Ker archaeological site on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the Ministry of Cults and Religion has appealed to pagodas and places of worship to celebrate the achievement by ringing bells, shaking rattles and banging gongs on September 20. Venerable

  • CP denied registration documents by ministry

    The Ministry of Interior will not reissue registration documents to the Candlelight Party (CP). Following a September 21 meeting between ministry secretary of state Bun Honn and CP representatives, the ministry cited the fact that there is no relevant law which would authorise it to do

  • Manet touches down in Beijing for high-level meetings

    Prime Minister Hun Manet arrived in Beijing on September 14 for his first official visit to China, where he is slated to attend the 20th China-ASEAN Expo and meet other leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Upon his arrival, Manet laid a wreath at the Monument

  • Cambodian diaspora laud Manet’s UN Assembly visit

    Members of the Cambodian diaspora are rallying in support of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s forthcoming visit to the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) in the US’ New York City this week. Their move is an apparent response to a recent call by self-exiled former