Outside the Legends factory in Phnom Penh, garment factory workers alight from the motorized cart they ride to work.
Posted by Kenneth Kaplan
March 12, 2009
But for young women supporting families, meager wages are still much sought-after
Elyse Lightman, a former resident of Concord, Mass., is a Trustee and Director of Special Projects for the Harpswell Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Cambodia. She has been travelling to Cambodia for the past five years from her home in Brooklyn, NY.
By Elyse Lightman
PHNOM PENH -- At 5:00 a.m., when Hap Saly and the four other young women with whom she lives wake up, the sky is still dark, and just a few early risers are outside sweeping their steps and cooking rice. The air, usually heavy, is cool and light. The roommates roll up their brightly colored sleeping mats, blankets, and pillows with pink fringe on the edges, and stack them in the corner of the room, raggedy teddy bears on top. Using a plastic cup and a bucket filled with cold water, they take turns washing in the tiny bathroom with the missing doorknob.
Five years ago, Hap Saly, now 25, came to Phnom Penh to work at the Chinese-run Eternal Way garment factory. As a child growing up in Tramung Chrum, a remote village without running water or electricity, sixty miles northwest of Phnom Penh, there was no school for her to attend. She studied Cham -- her ethnic minority’s language -- with her grandfather, the imam, but she never learned how to read or write in Khmer and didn’t learn basic math.
Some of the young women with whom Hap Saly lives left their village after a few years of schooling, some with none, in search of an income. Sen Nary, 20, studied up to grade 3. “My parents are so poor,” she said. “I needed to find a job to support them and to help my younger siblings study.”
While the monthly income for one third of Cambodians is $30, and the average is $50, garment factory workers make at least $55 a month, typically $77 with overtime. Hap Saly used to be able to save as much as $50 per month to send home to her families, but recently, as the prices of food, electricity, water, and rent have increased, that number has plummeted to $10-15.
And yet, even with garment factory workers’ dwindling savings, they would rather stay in Phnom Penh than return home. “It’s a small amount that we can save, but during the growing season we can send it to our parents to support them. If we return to our village, we have no work to do,” said Hap Saly.
Just two months ago, the two-story apartment building where Hap Saly lives was filled with thirty other garment factory workers. Now, Hap Saly and her four roommates are the only ones left on their floor -- everyone else lost their jobs. So they switched rooms, from one side of the building to the other. “The old room was too quiet,” they said. The new one overlooks a dirt road dotted with small houses, and a vacant lot littered with rubble.
The scene outside the Legends garment factory.
Thirty years after the end of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, when a quarter of the population, including the entire educated class, was killed, Cambodia is just beginning to recover. And so it is especially troubling that the previously robust garment industry -- which provides two-thirds of Cambodia’s export earnings -- is taking a hard hit from the global financial crisis. The Ministry of Commerce said on Tuesday that from January 2008-9, garment export revenue fell from $250 million to $70 million, and the Free Trade Union reported that over 20,000 garment factory workers have already lost their jobs this year, and 10,000 more are in danger of being unemployed as more factories threaten to close.
Garment factory workers’ savings will last them, on average, about one or two months in Phnom Penh. Some young women will return to their villages; some will seek jobs in other factories; some will become beer girls (where women wear outfits promoting beer brands, often going home with their customers at the end of the evening); some will join the sex industry; some will be construction workers -- jobs which are demoralizing, unsafe, or both.
Hap Saly says that when the first young women from her village began leaving to work at garment factories, some villagers looked down upon them and made assumptions about the work they would be doing. But now the girls are valued more because people realize they are able to support their families. Hap Saly says she doesn’t know of anyone from her village who works in the sex trade, but this is an anomaly for Cambodia.
The garment factory women are the breadwinners for their families, and the heaviness of their responsibility is palpable. But they are still animated and youthful. As they prepare to leave for work they peer into tiny hand-held mirrors and comb their long hair. The walls of their room are covered in photos of them at weddings, wearing make up and elaborate outfits, far from their usual pajama sets. Their single possession is a bottle of skin-whitening lotion that costs $0.50; they share it among the five of them.
Most young women who work at the factories don’t know how long they will stay in Phnom Penh: until they lose their job or get sick and need to leave. One garment worker who returned to her village told me she would follow in her ancestors’ footsteps, cooking, cleaning, marrying, and raising children. With a wistful look on her face she said, “everything is over.”
(Elyse Lightman photo)
Hap Saly, 25, who has worked in Phnom Penh's garment industry for five years.
Hap Saly gathers her uniform -- a yellow vest that says “Legends, Ltd.” on the sleeve, and an ID card. Referring to Eternal Way, the factory where she used to work, she claps her hands together, as if shutting the pages of a book: “Closed.” As a Cham Muslim, she usually wears a krama around her head, but, at least for now, she replaces it with the signature pink scarf of the garment workers.
Possessing a refreshing amount of ambition and hope, a quality hard to find in many of these young women with limited opportunities, Hap Saly confided in me that her dream is to learn how to sew and to set up a small shop in her village, perhaps training other girls in the skill.
For information about the Harpswell Foundation, please visit their website, at www.HarpswellFoundation.org. To learn how you can contribute to the Passport blog, contact the Globe's assistant foreign editor, Kenneth Kaplan, at email@example.com.
The Globe's Alan Taylor showcased a series of evocative -- and occasionally harrowing -- photographs from Cambodia last week on his blog, The Big Picture. Here's the link: