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Garment worker pageant troubles critics

Garment factory employees work on items of apparel in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district in 2014. The Ministry of Labour will open entries to a national garment worker beauty contest on April 3.
Garment factory employees work on items of apparel in Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district in 2014. The Ministry of Labour will open entries to a national garment worker beauty contest on April 3. Pha Lina

Garment worker pageant troubles critics

The Ministry of Labour is bringing back a beauty pageant for garment workers, which unions and commentators have deemed a “regressive” distraction from deep-seeded inequalities in the sector.

The government has again teamed with the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) and PNN TV for the pageant, which last year saw entrants compete for a first-place prize of $300 – more than double the $140 monthly minimum wage of a garment worker.

This year’s competition aims to “promote the beauty of the garment sector” and requires participants to be at least 1.58 metres tall (or 1.62 metres for men).

William Conklin, country director at the Solidarity Center, said the contest was all surface, no substance.

“The Ministry of Labour is trying to help promote the image of garment workers, but I think that there are other concerns they should concentrate on, such as road transport safety and … fainting in factories,” he said.

In just one horrific case last year, 18 garment factory workers lost their lives when the van that carried them crashed in Svay Rieng.

Conklin said the focus should be on paying workers above the minimum wage, adjusting long hours, and improving safety in hot, crowded factories.

“Many people consider [beauty contests] very regressive and as setting back women’s rights,” he said.

“If you do have a lot of women workers applying for it, that doesn’t mean they support it, it just means they want to earn money any way possible.”

But two garment workers, Sous Vanna, 25, from Koh Kong province, and Sem Thouen, 27, from Kampong Speu province, yesterday said they were itching to apply and take a rare opportunity to speak out on a national platform.

“It is a good chance for garment workers to compete on TV,” Vanna said.

“Apart from showing off my beauty, I will tell of my life working in a garment factory so the public can know about our lives. Our life is a struggle in this sector.”

Opposition lawmaker and women’s rights activist Mu Sochua suggested the beauty pageant was undignified and called for companies to raise staff wages.

“The only contest that should be conducted for the dignity of our garment workers is for the brands to compete on the wages of the workers: ‘Who dares give the workers a living wage’,” she said.

C.CAWDU leader Ath Thorn said the contest would serve as effective advertising for the garment industry and women could “show off their beauty in public”, but it was “not the most important work for the Ministry of Labour”, which he said should focus on improving workers’ rights and conditions.

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