Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Socially conscious textile startup struggling to find enough buyers

Socially conscious textile startup struggling to find enough buyers

Socially conscious textile startup struggling to find enough buyers

social.jpg
social.jpg

The Modern Garment Factory (MGF) does not fit the pattern of most Cambodian manufacturers.

The all-female management team aims to carve a niche by offering a healthy environment

for its entirely HIV-positive workforce. But it faces tough competition from a grueling

and sometimes abusive industry.

Modern Garment Factory - with its all-female, all-HIV-positive workforce - hopes to appeal to socially conscious buyers. But after four months in business, the UNDP-funded textile startup is struggling to get enough orders.

HIV-positive workers often resign or are dismissed from factories as a result of

discrimination and rigid conditions. But the MGF seeks only vulnerable, female, HIV-positive

candidates for their 40-strong work force. Tailor made "to help HIV-positive

people," according to factory manager Thavy, who asked that her real name not

be used.

There is no official reporting of dismissals or discrimination of factory workers

with HIV/AIDS according to Por Chuong, training coordinator at the International

Labor Organization (ILO) Phnom Penh. However, the problem was serious enough to prompt

an awareness campaign in the factories, which Chuong claims has reduced discrimination.

"I believe stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive workers still exists,"

said Ly Tek Heng, manager of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC),

"because most of the workers are from remote areas."

GMAC's 2007 statistics indicate that 296 garment factories are being operated with

372,050 workers, the majority of which - 339,320 - are women.

"They do not understand about HIV/AIDS," said Heng. "They are just

simply scared when they hear the word AIDS."

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, agrees that while there is little documentation,

discrimination still exists.

Laborers with HIV/AIDS, he said, are forced to quit or are dismissed if they take

too much time off for medical reasons.

"In general nobody fires them because they are people with HIV/AIDS," he

said. "They quit because they can not work as hard as healthy workers."

In other cases, when workers request leave, Mony said, "management takes the

opportunity to dismiss them."

HIV-positive workers also suffer poor treatment by co-workers who Mony said discriminate

and humiliate them "when people know they are HIV-positive."

"Before [one worker] had six friends but when they learned she was HIV-positive,

only one or two remained close to her - because they fear she might transmit the

virus to them," he said.

Co-workers, he added, keep their distance, avoid using the same toilet and even refuse

to eat together with HIV-positive colleagues.

If HIV-positive workers can tolerate the social pressures, many can not withstand

the grueling schedule. In most garment factories, workers are paid around $40 to

work a minimum of 26 days per month. They are pressured or compelled to work additional

hours to earn overtime wages that can top $100. If they take leave more than two

days per month, they are docked $5.

Healthy women can meet those conditions, explains factory manager Thavy. But HIV

positive workers need time off work to access medical services and maintain their

health. At MGF, it is not a problem if workers arrive late.

"The workers at other factories might get fired if they come late," said

Thavy.

At the MGF, conditions are different, explained Thavy. Workers receive only $45 plus

$5 bonus per month, working 8 hours a day, 22 days per month. They are not required

to work overtime.

One worker who asked not to be identified said, "The wage is only about $45-50

per month but it is easier and relaxed. We have special permission to go and access

medical services."

"If you work at another factory, you will never have a day off," the worker

continued. "Sometimes the owner even verbally abuses you when you ask for a

day off."

Adrain Oss, general secretary of New Island Clothing (Cambodia Limited), praised

the idea of helping HIV-positive women by providing factory work.

Oss expressed concern, however, that the factory might face bankruptcy.

"You need to manufacture the goods. You need to deliver them on time,"

Oss said. "If you have a high turnover or loss of people in the work envirsonment

because of their background and illness, you do face problems."

Cambodia's garment industry has attracted industry giants such as The Gap, Levi-Strauss,

Nike, Phillips-Van Heusen, Wal-Mart, Abercrombie & Fitch and Sears. Some of the

local factories these well-known brands work with have been embroiled in serious

labor violations - union disputes, severe work conditions and at times fatal violence

- which on occasion have tarnished their reputations.

Pheng Pharosin, coordinator of the Community of Cambodian Women Living with HIV/AIDS

(CCW) said the socially conscious MGF factory was started with a $40,000 loan to

her organization from a UNDP regional income generation project for HIV-positive

women.

The management acknowledges their greatest challenge is to establish a market. Thavy

said they have been losing money since the factory began operation in December 2006.

Overhead costs, she said, are $2,000 per month. The factory produces an average of

150 pieces per day that cost 700 riel each. After cost, the profit margin is just

$50-200 per month.

Thavy complained few local businessmen contracted with them, despite their low cost

per item. She admits that some of her 40-member workforce came to MGF without experience,

but she challenges other factory owners to scrutinize their work.

Chey Vathanack, whose Cambodia Garment Association provided two-weeks of training

for the workers, said MGF needs to improve their quality and skills. But Thavy countered,

"compared to other factories we have enough skills."

From the three-story MGF factory in Phnom Penh, Thavy gazed at an impressive shopping

mall being constructed in the emerging urban development in Tumnub Toeuk. "What

the MGF needs," she said, "is a market."

-Chea Sotheacheath is a freelance contributor, working full-time for Internews Mekong

Project on media and HIV/AIDS.

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