Slump in garment sector means workers are making less money, causing many to cut back on food spending despite potential health consequences.
Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Garment workers, including one pregnant worker, inspect the food on offer outside the gates of their factory.
SITTING near a food vendor in front of the Kin Na garment factory in Meanchey district, garment worker Phin Ron, 23, eats a meagre lunch with her friends.
"I spend only 1,000 riels (US$0.24) for a meal at any time, and I eat just enough to keep hunger at bay," she said. "The food I eat every day does not give me enough energy, but I don't have money to buy good food or eat in a restaurant. I don't want to waste money on food, even though it's important for my health. I have to save money for my family."
With an increasing number of Phnom Penh garment factories closing or reducing hours due to the global economic crisis, garment workers are making less, a trend that often has a negative effect on their diets, workers and experts say.
In recent interviews with the Post, many garment workers said the lack of nutrition in their diets had left them exhausted, pale and prone to illness.
"Sometimes I get a headache and become very tired when I work hard," said Seng Srey Touch, an 18-year-old garment worker. "I think it is because I eat unhealthy food now."
And if a garment worker becomes pregnant, malnutrition can be fatal for both mother and child, said Veng Thai, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Health Department.
"Our concern now is the malnutrition that happens to women, especially pregnant ones," he said. "If they do not eat enough healthy food,
they will risk their lives when they deliver a baby."
Women lose a lot of blood during childbirth, Veng Thai noted, adding that a malnourished woman can become too weak to actually deliver a child naturally.
I don't want to waste money on food, even though it's important.
According to the World Health Organisation, the consequences of a mother being undernourished and eating a poor diet can be severe for a new baby, increasing the risk of infant mortality. Veng Thai said babies born to malnourished mothers tend to have weak immune systems.
Im Sithe, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Women's Affairs, blamed the economic crisis for exacerbating the problem of workers' diets.
"[Garment workers] have to spend as little as possible because they worry about losing their jobs in the future as more and more factories close down," she said.
The Ministry of Women's Affairs has yet to implement a strategy to improve the nutrition of garment workers, but Im Sithe said a plan was in the works.
"We are thinking of ways to educate women about nutrition and choosing a healthy diet," she said. "But we have not decided yet what we will do."
Many garment workers interviewed by the Post said they would like to eat better food but simply cannot afford to do so.
"Sometimes when I walk down the street and I see people in restaurants, I want to eat food that I have never eaten before," Phin Ron said. "I tell myself that I will have a chance to eat it when I have enough money."
Im Sithe urged garment workers to buy healthy food even if their wages were low.
"They must take care of their health because the ministry is not able to increase their salary yet," she said. "[Garment workers] must think about which is better: saving a little money or getting sick. When they get sick, they will have to spend more than what they have saved."
Cheat Khemara, a senior labour official at the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said he worried that many of the garment workers were sacrificing their health to help support family members.
"The factory workers should think about their health before they think about their families," he said. "I see that most of them send their salaries to their families without keeping any money for themselves. They spend money on cheap food with no health benefits."