Blood on our backs

Global garment workers deserve more than intermittent concern

January 11, 2014 3:31PM ET
A garment worker on strike holds a banner demanding a minimum salary of $160 a month on December 27, 2013 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Omar Havana/Getty Images

Early one morning about a week ago, I awoke in a shiver, grabbed a purple cotton shirt from my closet and pulled it over my head. I didn’t notice the label. I made my coffee and checked the news.

On the other side of the globe, five Cambodians had been shot and killed and more than 20 wounded as military police cracked down on a swelling demonstration of garment workers protesting for higher pay. I clicked on the wrenching photo of a body bathed in blood, his shirt and pants painted the same startling red as the dirt beneath him. As rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails flew, armed forces responded with batons and bullets. The human-rights group Licadho called it the worst violence against Cambodian civilians in 15 years.

It’s a remarkably risky job, making clothes for Westerners. When the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh in April, killing more than 1,100 people, we Westerners responded with a collective pause: How, exactly, should we think about the workers who make our clothes? But we didn’t think long or hard enough. In October fire killed seven workers in a Bangladesh fabric mill that supplied cloth for Western companies. Human Rights Watch has said the tragedy could have been prevented. And now blood spatters the streets of Phnom Penh amid massive political protests, as opposition leaders demand long-standing Prime Minister Hun Sen step down after decades in charge.

I looked at the shirt on my back: a Tresics tag, “made in Cambodia.” I flipped through hangers and dresser drawers to find more made-in-Cambodia labels from Mossimo, Old Navy, Faded Glory, Gap and Sonoma, purchased long ago from Target, Walmart and Kohl’s.

No quick fix

Garment manufacturing accounts for nearly $5 billion in annual exports and employs 400,000 Cambodians, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Workers want a minimum monthly income of $160, double their current rate. (The government has offered $100.) Most employees are young women who leave rural villages for jobs in Phnom Penh. They choose to move, often in desperation, typically with hope for something better than the hand-to-mouth existence the Cambodian countryside affords. What they find is far harder than imagined.

One night last spring, a garment worker named Korn Phearum led me through the maze of her Phnom Penh neighborhood, row upon row of congested apartments. Her home, shared with her husband and brother, was a concrete rectangle about 12 feet wide and 16 feet deep, with a squat toilet in back. A slat bed occupied most of the space, leaving just a skinny aisle in which to move. All three residents slept on that bed. They ate there, cooked there and stowed their belongings — dishes, toiletries, pots and pans, baskets of clothes — atop that single piece of furniture. Next door, music blared through the walls. “It’s always like that until 11 p.m.,” Phearum said.

She left her home in the countryside “because my hometown has no work,” she said. In Phnom Penh she earned about $150 a month with overtime from a small factory making jeans. “It’s not enough.” Rent, electricity, water, food and payments to relatives back home ate up all her earnings. When the minimum wage rose $10 the previous year, her rent and food costs did the same.

But Phearum fared better than her neighbors, an extended family of eight nursing an ailing mother, asleep on their bed. Mop Phak and her brother, Sao Veasna, had racked up more than $2,000 in medical bills as they watched their frail mother suffer through two years of weight loss and stomach pain. They borrowed money and left their rural farm to work in a garment factory. “I’m happy because I can earn money to cure her,” Veasna said. “But I’m sad.” He saw no way to escape the worker treadmill and cyclical debt.

The recent protests have clogged Phnom Penh’s streets and stymied business, with an industry loss of $200 million, The Cambodia Daily reports. The economic fallout, according to the ILO, could leave indelible scars and a tarnished reputation among international buyers. But where does it leave the worker? If brands abandon Cambodia and factories close, where would Phearum, Phak and Veasna go? Or the others entrusted to their care?

There is no simple fix. To ban Cambodian labels from U.S. homes would not help workers who need jobs. It’s an age-old dilemma that goes round and round: Factories don’t pay more because international buyers pay the same, no matter how much the laborers earn. If international buyers raised their rates, they’d pass the increase onto Western consumers. And that wouldn’t work, Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Association, told me more than a year ago. Westerners want cheap clothes, he said. In the end, a few boycotting consumers “can’t do anything.”

Loo told The Cambodia Daily that the garment industry would recover from the week’s violence. But will the workers?

Systemic change

Labor conditions in Cambodia won’t improve unless consumers in the West demand industrywide, systemic change — and companies commit to meeting those demands.

We could start by accepting that we must pay more for our clothes — a difficult shift for many Americans who make minimum wages themselves. That’s why corporations need to step in, too. As consumers, we should insist that the stores and brands we patronize invest more in labor, both at home and abroad, and that factories increase workers’ wages. Multiple studies show that a happier, healthier, higher-paid workforce translates into less turnover and potentially greater company profits. Finally, we should ensure that our elected leaders hold other governments accountable.

We should also shift the way in which we view the workers who make our clothes. It’s easy to dismiss a person’s humanity when she is so far away. But she has a name, like Phearum or Phak. And she has a life beyond her job. She has a mother who needs medicine, a child who needs food and schooling. She is not just a cog in a sewing machine; she is a human being.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster, many foreign retailers and brands promised to improve conditions in Bangladeshi factories. Several deals — some legally binding, others not — committed to better building safety, more factory inspections and greater worker and manager training. These are all necessary improvements, but they don’t do enough. These plans address the workplace, not the human being.

The human being needs help beyond the factory floor. She needs better and more nutritious food. She needs a safe, clean home and books for her kids. She needs a life free from imminent penury. She needs a living wage, not a minimum wage. Her basic well-being rests on everyone — consumers, retailers, brands and factories. And at the very least, it’s in the company’s interest to have healthier, more productive employees.

But the change must start here, at home, in our own closets, from our own politics. For years, we have all worn the workers’ weight, stitched into our shirts and pants. This month, we shoulder their blood once again.

Karen Coates is a journalist, author and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Her latest book, with Jerry Redfern, is “Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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