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Women who drive the economy's engine

Women who drive the economy's engine


Khem Sovannara

Garment factory workers Sum Keri, 24, left, Keo Roathanak, 18, Pav Chantea, 18, Theang Soni, 25, Engly Neang, 33, and Prak Nin, 18, right, in the three-meter-by-four home they share.

Keo Roathanak, 18, squats solemnly outside the door of Room 7 as if on guard duty.

She smiles when she says she lives there, and gestures inside. Then, suddenly, the

shy giggles of five bright young faces burst through the door. This "apartment"

- a windowless concrete cell, three meters by four, with a toilet in the corner -

is home to six garment factory workers, all with similar stories to tell.

"We are too shy to cook outside where everyone can see," says Roathanak.

"We put our clothes in suitcases to protect them from the oil."

Room 7 is one of many in the "Crocodile Lake" (Boeng Krapeuv) housing compound,

about 6 km south of Phnom Penh on Veng Streng Road. Inside, one big wooden, platform-bed

takes up most of the space. The young women, clad in sarongs, perch on top under

pictures of Thai and Khmer pop stars cut out from magazines and taped to the walls.

Somehow, a cozy atmosphere has been created within the cold sickly-yellow walls.

Under the shadow of dust-soiled industrial tanks and guarded by a high fence, housing

blocks sit in sinister, orderly rows. The complex bears an uncomfortable resemblance

to a prison compound.

Cambodia has about 300,000 garment factory workers, and many have lives much like

those of Roathanak and her roommates. An industry analyst said the industry now makes

up 40 percent of the country's economic engine - and these are the young women who

drive it.

The women in No 7 know one another from small farming villages in Kampong Cham province,

and their talk often focuses on an idyllic country life they've left behind. Somehow

these girls, used to so much space, survive in their confine.

"There's plenty of room here," says Roathanak as the five others chorus

their agreement.

Roathanak is already a veteran. She smiles about her factory ID card with its false

name and birth date, which allowed her to start work a year and a half ago when she

was 16.

"You have to be 18, and I thought they'd catch me," she says. "They

usually let you start if you're a few months under though."

Roathanak's father is a fisherman, but doesn't get much work. Her mother spins silk.

Roathanak left school and helped them out for a year. Then a friend from Roathanak's

village - a supervisor at the factory - set up a job for her.

"I wasn't scared when I first came here on the truck from the village,"

she says.

"I'd been to Phnom Penh to visit my aunt when I was 14 and there were lots of

girls from the village here. My parents aren't so strict but they didn't let me go

out at night."

The most striking thing she recalls is seeing the colored lights of the city for

the first time.

The six women are all on the minimum wage of $45 a month. Negotiations between garment

unions and employers to raise this have still not yielded satisfactory results for

the unions, and workers may yet strike.

"All of us need to volunteer for the most overtime we can," Roathanak says.

"If we are lucky we sometimes get five days a week, which is the most they ever


Starting at 7am, the women work eight hours a day, six days a week at the Chinese-owned

Hwee Hong Cambodian Garment Factory. They take one hour off for lunch at 11am, grabbing

some rice and soup for 1,000 riel just outside the factory gates. They finish work

at 4pm, but most opt for the two-and-a-half-hours' overtime.

They earn about $1.73 a day for their standard eight hours. Overtime is 1,200 riel

an hour. That means a paltry 75 cents for the last exhausting push of the day, taking

their wage to $2.50 for a grueling, mind-numbing ten-and-a-half-hour day on the production

line. For a year and a half Roathanak has sewn sleeves on to shirts for ten and half

hours a day. "It's thoamada ," she says. Thoamada (OK in Khmer) is a word

garment factory workers seem to use to describe anything tough.

It is the thought of helping their families back home which motivates these young

women to sacrifice their free time and rest.

"I try to send $30 home every month, and the five others are all sending $20

to 30 too," says Roathanak, who has an eighth-grade education. Her migration

to Phnom Penh's factories means her three young brothers and sisters can afford to

continue studying. Such sacrifice is a common theme for garment workers.

"It was my decision to come here; I saw how poor my family was," Roathanak


"But life is still the same for my family. It's made no difference."

The young women usually get to bed at 10pm. "We sometimes try for 9pm but the

other rooms are too noisy," she says. "We get up about 5:30 am. It takes

about 40 minutes for all of us to have a shower."

Roathanak is too tired to think about what more privileged city teenagers do in their

free time.

"I'm so tired, I just want to sleep," she says. "There's no time for

going out. Usually we just spend an hour or two watching TV outside a neighbor's

room. I miss the countryside. I like the scenery, going out for walks, and being

close to my parents and friends. I'm happier in the countryside than here."

Rent costs her $5 a month, and electricity, water and gas about $2.25. She spends

3,000 riel a day on food, roughly $23 month. Her monthly expenses add up to $30.25.

If she comes to work every day she gets a monthly bonus of $5.

"But we lose $2 for every day we miss," Roathanak says. "That means

we lose $7 for the first day we miss." Her eyes suggest that this is a crippling


"If we get sick we have to go to the factory and fill out a form for our Chinese

supervisor, but they still cut our pay. At least then we don't get a 'warning'."

Three "warnings" for any violation are enough to get fired, she says. If

a girl is sick for more than two weeks, as well as losing all her pay, she will get

fired if she cannot produce a doctor's letter.

"I never get sick," Roathanak says.

On a rare month when everything goes right, she can make $68 with maximum overtime

and bonuses. Then she sends home $30, which would leave $8 for herself. This soon

disappears on unexpected family illnesses or travel expenses.

Usually these young women have nothing left over for them-selves, because they cannot

get enough overtime. Luckily, their factory is only 10 minutes away by foot. Many

others have to pay $5 to $6 a month for a daily remorque (motorbike-drawn trailer),

or even more expensive motodop fees. There is seldom any money for clothes, cosmetics

or even an evening dessert.

"Food is much more expensive here," says Engly Neang, who at 33 is the

eldest woman in the room. She left her husband and two children in Kampong Cham,

as they could not make ends meet.

"Trakoun [water spinach] costs 300 riel a bunch, while back home it's only 100,"

she says.

The women do not often go into Phnom Penh, but they are all planning to go to the

city for the Water Festival.

"They say last year it cost 5,000 riel one way for two on a moto," Roathanak


In her year and half at the factory, she has only been into downtown Phnom Penh once

- to visit her great uncle and take a walk on the riverside. None of the roommates

have ever been to the movies or even to a local wat.

"We don't know Phnom Penh, so we don't go there," she says.

"Anyway, I'm frightened my parents would hit me if I went on my own."

Roommate Sum Keri, 24, says she will go to Phnom Penh one day, if relatives invite


"But not with single men, I'm scared they might do something sinful with me,"

she says.

Men are conspicuously absent on the garment factory floor.

"They don't like boys because they talk back and cause problems," Keri


These unassuming young women are resilient - rice-field tough - and seem capable

of enduring the long hours, low pay and lack of entertainment.

"In the countryside I worked under the hot sun, but that was OK too," Keri


Asked if it is tougher working here than in the country, she replies: "Thoamada."

"But my skin is whiter now working inside - I like white skin."

On Sunday, their day off, they like to sleep, Roathanak says.

"We sleep in to 7 or 8 am, sometimes even 9 am," she says. "I take

a nap for a couple of hours, too. We walk around the compound - we're too lazy to

go out into the village."

The subjects of conversation echo those of other girls their age, anywhere in the


"We talk about love," says Pav Chanthea, 18. "We talk about boys from

the village - where did he go, which one was handsome. But not about ones here, we

don't know them."

Keri's parents worry about her a lot. "I tell them it's safe here. It's close

to the factory, and I walk back with the others when it's dark," Keri says.

The roommates expressed little concern about the vulnerability of village girls sent

to the city. They insist they have heard nothing about other factory girls falling

into the sex trade or being taken advantage of by factory bosses.

"I have heard of rapes and things in other places," Roathanak says. "Sometimes

my parents call me on my friend's phone at the factory to ask if I'm safe."

In those cases she can sneak in a call once in a while.

"But if the boss sees me, he'll shout at me," she says.

Like the infamous Victorian-era work houses, silence is strictly enforced at all

times on most work floors.

"When our work is finished we can chit-chat and joke around, but if it's not,

our bosses give us a 'warning'," Keri says about their factory.

Roathanak says her favorite pop-star is the current heartthrob Som Pu Medada. But,

she says, good looks and money are not what she's looking for in a husband.

"I haven't thought about my future yet," she says. "But I'd like a

kind husband, with two or three children in the countryside. He can drink a little,

but he has to have a loyal heart."

She says her parents want her to find a husband who can earn a decent wage.

"I want a100 percent loyal husband," Keri says. "Love gives some happiness

as well as problems."

It seems these girls do not allow themselves dreams of a better life.

"When I have free time I sometimes think it would be good to study some more,

but I don't usually think about it," Roathanak says. "It's too late and

I have no money."

She says it takes two years to become a factory supervisor. "But none of us

are going to get that job because they're already taken."

They were all excited that the need to register to vote in the 2007 commune elections

meant an extra visit to their home villages.

" I want to be in the countryside, where it's natural and the air is fresh,"

Keri says. "My family lives by the river."

With that, the roommates join a throng of other young women huddled outside the window

of another room, peering through metal bars at a tiny TV playing a popular soap opera.

It pays not to think about home too much.


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