For women in work, the challenge is to find ways to balance work
commitments and family, particularly for those working in low-paid
industries such as construction and textiles
Despite a progressive attitude to gender equality in the workplace, low wages in the garment sector can leave women with little education and few options for balancing work and family.
Maternity and the labour law
ARTICLE 182 of Cambodia’s labour law states that female employees who have worked for their employer for a period of one year or more are entitled to 90 days maternity leave at 50 percent of their regular earnings.
They are also entitled to one hour per day paid breastfeeding time for one year after they give birth.
Employers are also prohibited from laying off employees during their maternity-leave period, and employees should only be expected to perform light work for two months after their return from maternity leave.
The battle for gender equality in the workplace has been long and hard-fought. Although it is unlikely to ever be completely over, great progress has been made in the West, with many proverbial glass ceilings smashed.
The battle is also being fought in Cambodia, although the nature of the struggle is different. In a country where university-educated professional women can already expect equality in the workplace, the challenge is to extend equality of opportunity to the poorest in society.
In a speech marking International Women's Day Celebrations on March 8, Prime Minister Hun Sen referred to Cambodian women as "a priceless asset for national development" and trumpeted the importance of equality for women in education and the workplace.
He referred to the example set by parliament, which saw a 30 percent increase in the number of women at the 2008 elections.
However, Hun Sen acknowledged there were challenges to be addressed if Cambodia hoped to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, promote gender equality and achieve universal primary education. These challenges include raising the rate of female enrolment at all levels of school, and fighting the high dropout rate of women and high female adult illiteracy.
Ministry of Women's Affairs Secretary of State Sivann Botum agreed with Hun Sen's assessment. The ministry was still struggling with the basics of encouraging parents to send their daughters to school, she said.
"Even though now many women have the same ability as men, they are still discriminated against, though we have seen great improvement in the last five years."
The progress Sivann Botum refers to can be seen most clearly in companies that employ university-educated, professional women.
The UN Development Program has set a female employment target of between 40 percent and 60 percent of its staff roster. However, Samyith Sen, the organisation's human resources manager, said women currently accounted for just 30 to 35 percent of the 400-person workforce.
"It is difficult to find qualified women that meet our expectations because managerial positions require them to hold a master's degree and have some experience and it is hard to find both of these requirements met," he said. "More times than most, women will have the experience but not hold the degree."
UNDP is addressing the problem by recruiting women for entry-level positions and training them in-house for managerial roles. They have also been in discussion with universities concerning the shortage.
Sou Moniveark, head of human resources at ANZ Royal Bank, said around 46 percent of the bank's 520 employees were women, including four of the nine executive roles.
The bank offers three months' paid maternity leave, free and unlimited International SOS medical visits for employees in the pre- and postnatal stages of pregnancy (during working hours) and time for one hour's paid breastfeeding per day. "I would say personally ANZ is very supportive of women and very flexible with my working time," said Sou Moniveark, who is pregnant with her second child.
"I am lucky because my parents look after my children while I work and I have a maid to take care of the housework and my husband shares the work of caring for the baby. But there is always guilt about your choices, especially in the first few months when you return to work. But I know if I stayed home and looked after the baby full-time I would not feel satisfied."
Of the four women employed in executive positions at ANZ, Sou Moniveark said all of them were working mothers, and together they formed a strong peer support network. But she cautions Cambodian women about taking on too much.
"I think by nature women are full of perseverance and deal with things more internally than men. So I think we have to resolve the problem of having too much pressure by expressing our needs more often.
An impoverished childhood can leave few options for women
While Cambodia can be regarded as fairly progressive in terms of attitudes towards women in the workplace, the long-term effects of an impoverished childhood can lead many women into a lifetime of disadvantage.
For women like Soun Sokunthea, 35, a garment worker at ASD Co Ltd, the working rights of women still have a long way to go.
From a poor, single-parent family, Soun Sokunthea was forced to leave school at 13 to work in a brick factory. She later tried her hand at construction before ending up in a garment factory.
“I really loved my study and I had dreams of becoming an actress,” she said. “But it is really hard for women with low education to find work, and many people look down on me for the work I do now.”
Soun Sokunthea recently took part in a conference aimed at educating and empowering women about their rights, but says her dreams of an “educated”
career are now well and truly over.
The ILO estimates that 27,000 garment factory workers, the majority of
whom are women, have lost their jobs since the beginning of the global
economic recession in late 2008 and that more layoffs are likely. Women
who cannot find re-employment in the sector are likely to
return home to their farms, if they can, while others may look for work
in nightclubs, karaoke parlours, restaurants and beer gardens.
This low-paid, high-risk industry draws women without the skills for
garment or hospitality work. It has been estimated that between 20
percent and 30 percent of all construction
workers are female. Average wages are about 12,000 riels per day, or about a third less than males earn. The construction industry is also suffering from the economic crisis with more than 30 percent of jobs in the sector lost since mid-2008.