Locked Down and Out of Work: Desperation Sets in among Garment Workers

A truck transports garment workers on April 24 in Takeo Province. Photo by Sem Vanna.
  • Phoung Vantha, Lay Sopheavotey and Gerald Flynn
  • April 30, 2021 7:56 AM

The poverty among workers is the result of long-standing exploitation in Cambodia’s garment sector, which has busted unions, stolen wages and left workers starving and indebted during the pandemic

PHNOM PENH--It was Friday night, April 23, 2021, when Touch Channet’s husband threw her out of their rented room in Toul Pongro, a village in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey District that had been designated a red zone.

“When he got drunk, he would throw things and kick me out of the room we rented together,” said Channet, a 33-year-old garment worker. “It only happened when he was drunk, but I would have to sleep outdoors if I couldn’t find another room.”

This time her husband, Ky Chi, locked the door behind her for the last time. Channet didn’t protest: Instead, she went next door and was able to sleep on the floor of a colleague’s rented room. Channet and her neighbor both worked at Hongs One Garment, a Phnom Penh-based garment factory that—according to shipping records seen by Cambodianess—were shipping goods to the US company Victoria’s Secret as recently as April 5.

The next day, Channet’s neighbor woke her as they had been called for COVID-19 testing in line with red zone rules. The door to her own rented room was still locked.

“I knocked and called, but no answer. I went to the window and I could see him hanging there,” she recalled.

Her husband, a 35-year-old construction worker who had been unemployed since the Feb. 20 outbreak, had hung himself.

Police reluctantly gained access to the room and so-called reporters from SH News immediately pushed their way through to film Chi’s body while it was being recovered by police as part of a livestream report.

Their interest didn’t extend to Channet, who was charged $400 for her husband’s body to be transported back to his family in Kampong Thom Province. She was unable to attend her husband’s funeral as she remains in quarantine following the mass testing across Phnom Penh’s red zones, so she said goodbye to her husband after agreeing to pay for the ambulance to take away his body. Now she can only hope that her parents can take care of the funeral arrangements and her 5-year-old child.

Besides her husband’s drinking, Channet said she had not noticed any signs of depression. Financial difficulties, she speculated, could have played a part. They rented the room in Phnom Penh for $35 a month, but water and electricity were an additional $40 each month and then there was the $50 loan repayments she had to make to a microfinance institution (MFI) each month.

“I don’t know the name [of the MFI) as my cousin who borrowed $1,000 from them for me: I just sent them money to repay it each month,” she explained.

Ky hadn’t been able to earn for months while Channet worked until April 11 but living off her wages was already a strained existence, eating nothing but eggs, rice and noodles. Despite the difficulties, Channet said she couldn’t understand why her husband had killed himself.

“I have nothing, no income, my child is still at such a young age, just five years old, and we’re in debt,” she said. “I have no money and this month, I cannot pay my debts or the interest or even my husband’s funeral—I have no way to go.”

Since her husband passed, Channet said she has had support from an NGO as well as journalists and her neighbors, but no government donations have reached her community so far.

No Work, No Pay

This comes as some 500,000 garment workers are languishing under lockdown regulations, with around 500 factories closed, according to the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training. It is not without reason that the government has closed garment factories: As of April 28, there had been COVID-19 outbreaks in 206 factories and 1,673 workers have been infected while more than 17,000 are quarantining due to potential exposure to the virus.

Just two days into the lockdown, on April 17, the Labour Ministry announced that employers would only need to pay garment workers from April 1 through April 14, but added that the sector could provide “an additional allowance for their workers/employees according to their ability based on the spirit of humanity, solidarity and social responsibility in this difficult time.”

Fast forward two days and the Garments Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) wrote that those factories affected by lockdown had the right to suspend their employees’ contracts that, they said, “will make employers have no obligation to pay workers/employees unless there are provisions to the contrary that require employers to pay workers/employees.”

Ken Loo, president of GMAC, declined to comment on how many of the association’s members would offer their employees any level of support—whether in the form of money or, as has increasingly been demanded by those in lockdown, food.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour speaks in a press conference on April 28. 

Then, on April 28, the Labour Ministry made a new announcement: Garment factory workers whose contracts were suspended due to lockdown would receive 50 percent of their salaries for April 2021.

Labour Ministry spokesman Heng Sour, who made the announcement, called for understanding between employers and employees, but reiterated that “there was no difference between our previous announcements” and that garment factory owners still had no obligation to support their employees during the lockdown.

“It's just another kick in the teeth for people who have already been doing it tough during the pandemic,” said Patrick Lee, a legal consultant with the labor rights group CENTRAL. “There's no certainty here for workers in how much they'll receive.”

Lee said that, if the government genuinely believes that employers can’t afford to pay workers’ wages, then they should intervene and supplement workers’ wages rather than charging people for emergency food through the Ministry of Commerce.

“Considering some of the antics we saw from GMAC in particular last year around the minimum wage—wanting to suspend it and then decrease it—I'm not filled with a lot of optimism, but I hope I'm proven wrong,” said Lee.

Wage Theft and Low Pay Have Contributed to Catastrophe

Lee has assisted CENTRAL in tracking the impact of the pandemic on garment workers and has uncovered a string of brutal tactics that were exposed in an April 2021 report entitled “Fired, Then Robbed” by the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC) that spanned 31 factories across nine countries, including Cambodia.

The report focused on factories that had dismissed workers and then refused to pay severance benefits, which WRC said was all that stood between garment workers and immediate poverty.

“In total, the wage theft at these 31 facilities robbed 37,637 workers of $39.8 million. This is an average of more than a thousand dollars (US) per person, which is about five months’ wages for the typical garment worker,” the report read.

An additional 210 garment factories in 18 countries were suspected of depriving employees of severance pay during the pandemic.

“Severance theft during the pandemic is an acute manifestation of a long-standing failure of apparel brands and retailers to ensure that the workers in their supply chains are paid what they are legally owed when they lose their jobs,” wrote WRC, which has been working for 15 years to expose the malpractices of the garments manufacturing industry worldwide.

Infographic designed by Touch Sovandy

The WRC report argued that brands and retailers have exacerbated historic structural problems in the garment sector, but have eschewed their responsibilities in ensuring that their supply chains are free from labor rights abuses—particularly, the report stated, by sourcing from countries like Cambodia with poor governance.

The lack of will on behalf of those governing garment-exporting countries to put in place adequate unemployment benefits or other social safety nets, WRC said, was what made their countries targets for brands in need of cheap labor.

“As a result, in country after country, theft of severance, combined with job loss, results in deprivation for families—homes lost, malnutrition, disruption of schooling for children, and extortionate debt,” the report read.

COVID-19 Exposed a Crisis in the Garment Industry

As previous shocks to Cambodia’s garment sector have shown, it is people like Long Kakada, a worker and union leader at Din Han factory, who pay the price for the availability of cheap garments in the global north.

Emboldened by the Labour Ministry, Din Han Enterprise—a garment factory where 200 COVID-19 cases were found on April 9—has not paid salaries for March 2021.

“In March, some workers were paid, but some were not yet paid,” said Kakada, who has not been paid since March. “[I] heard that the employer has already paid, but the Chinese manager did not pay employees and didn’t send salaries to workers due to a technical error. But it’s very difficult for us: Almost everyone is in debt.”

For seven years, Kakada has worked at Din Han Enterprise, which is owned by Yi-Hsien Huang—a Taiwanese national involved in multiple garment factories across Cambodia—but Kakada said that management does not understand that these years of hard work warrant support during this difficult time.

Like the majority of Cambodia’s garment workers who are preserved in a state of near-poverty, Kakada has debts to repay and, despite the increasing severity of the latest outbreak, the financial sector is yet to offer more proactive measures to support borrowers.

“It’s worse for other workers than for me,” said Kakada, who has $7,000 in outstanding debts and pays $350 in interest alone each month. “Other workers lack food and banks will not help them when it comes to repayments.”

He has managed, so far, to forestall repayments by a month—a luxury he recognized many other garment workers lack. But, he said, he is unprepared if the COVID-19 crisis continues.

“I’m worried, I’m really looking forward to returning to work to get paid for a living so I can repay my loans,” he said.

Latest estimates suggest that some 700 of the 2,500 employees at Din Han factory have tested positive for COVID-19 and, as of April 29, garment workers made up 13.2 percent of all Cambodia’s recorded infections since records began in early 2020.

Impoverished and At-Risk

Following a relatively unsuccessful vaccination drive in factories, Dr. Li Ailan, the World Health Organization’s representative in Cambodia, said on April 25 that garment workers had a responsibility to stay home while sick and avoid crowds.

But this fails to acknowledge the reality of factory workers’ precarious working and living conditions, wrote Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who noted that garment workers cannot afford sick days, live and work in confined spaces not out of choice but out of necessity, and that, despite a whole year of warnings, no safeguards have been put in place by the industry or the authorities to protect them.

Similarly, Dainius Pūras, a UN expert in health, in July 2020 warned that “[p]hysical distancing to contain the spread of COVID-19 is difficult to achieve when there are inequalities in the underlying and social determinants of health, such as adequate housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, food, social security and protection from violence.”

Pūras called for “human rights-based responses” to COVID-19. But in Cambodia, the government and the garment sector alike have been accused of using the cover of the pandemic to abuse rights.

“We've seen just how happily over the last year employers have latched onto a certain letter issued by a Ministry of Labor official as an excuse to withhold severance benefits owed to workers,” said Lee of CENTRAL. “These aren't small sums of money either: The calculations I've seen at Violet Apparel for example exceed more than $343,000 that workers collectively missed out on.”


Garment workers gather near Derm Roka market in Takeo Province on April 24 . Photo by Sem Vanna. 

Lee praised local independent trade unions taking a stand for workers’ rights during the pandemic, but noted that this had made them a target for employers.

“Just taking one union as an example, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions had eleven leaders terminated in four factories in 2020,” Lee said. “None of them have been reinstated and the relevant brands there—H&M, Clarks, Bestseller—did nothing to push for their reinstatement despite their grand public claims on commitment to freedom of association.”

The government seems more intent on stripping workers of their rights in the name of competitiveness, added Lee, which he said would result in less money in workers’ pockets.

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation and a veteran unionist who has seen firsthand the impact of cuts to workers’ benefits, said that factory owners should pay wages and benefits to workers during the lockdown.

“They should pay the workers' salary during the lockdown period, and regularly as it’s already scheduled for their accounts: [workers] need it and the lockdown is not a barrier to payments,” he said. “It’s better to pay online so to avoid crowding at offices or factories, and many cannot leave home to collect wages anyway.”

Exploitation is a Feature, Not a Bug in the Garment Sector

For Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28, 2021, a joint statement signed by 36 NGOs, civil society organizations and unions called on the government to introduce stronger occupational health and safety mechanisms, along with better accommodation and transport for factory workers, and, perhaps more importantly, a social protection system that serves workers who lose their incomes.

But throughout the pandemic, workers have been robbed of their wages as a March 2021 report from Business & Human Rights Resources Centre (BHRRC) found. The report focused on eight factories—four of which were located in Cambodia—and found that 9,843 garment workers along with their families had been victims of wage theft while H&M, Nike and Levi’s—the brands sourcing from these eight factories—recorded $10 billion in profits in the second half of 2020 alone.

“In all but one of the eight cases, at least a portion of wages, benefits and severance are still owed to workers months later,” the report read, highlighting the gulf between the glossy rhetoric of companies and the lived realities of the employees who prop up their supply chains.

According to BHRRC, the non-payment of wages during the pandemic—much of which stemmed from brands or retailers cancelling orders due to drops in demand across Cambodia’s key export markets—are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The business model of fashion brands and the structure of global garment supply chains do not inadvertently result in exploitative wage practices, but deliberately create, sustain and rely upon them,” the report read. “Persistently low and exploitative wages, which fall far short of meeting the most basic needs of garment workers and their families, continue to be the foundation of the industry, despite brand commitments on living wages.”

Like so many problems in Cambodian society, the prevalence of the garment sector can be traced back to the post-Khmer Rouge UNTAC period. In 1995 there were just 20 factories and some 18,000 Cambodians working in them. But through the UN’s attempt to cultivate export-led growth within Cambodia, there are now between 600,000 to 1 million Cambodians employed by the garments sector, according to Sabina Lawreniuk.

A research fellow at the United Kingdom’s University of Nottingham, Lawreniuk hosted a webinar on April 26 during which she presented findings from a study into the impact of COVID-19 on Cambodia’s garment sector.

Lawreniuk’s research pointed to structural issues within the garment sector that showed that the rapid growth of garment manufacturing had not contributed evenly to wider development and that Cambodia’s refusal to climb up the value chain had resulted in a limited share of value retained in Cambodia.

In short, Cambodia’s garment sector, despite generating exports worth $8 billion annually, has done little for Cambodians.

“Over time the optimism that garments manufacturing would offer women economic empowerment ceded to growing concerns over exploitation,” said Lawreniuk, who noted that foreign ownership within the garment sector was preventing profits from being reinvested into Cambodia.

But Lawreniuk warned that local ownership wouldn’t guarantee better conditions for workers. From Bangladesh to the UK, low wages and poor conditions persist, she said, and Cambodia needs to retain a larger share of profits within its own borders, either through local ownership or stronger taxation, which could see greater investment in social security infrastructure.

“I Felt Like Screaming”

The webinar hosted by Lawreniuk and entitled “Covid capitalism in Cambodia’s garment industry: Production, reproduction, and resistance” showed how the sector had become a monopsonya market with a single or limited buyers—with many suppliers and few buyers, allowing intense competition to drive down prices and, subsequently, wages for workers.

Increased flexibility and intensification have allowed brands to skimp on benefits for workers who, in the eyes of the industry, are replaceable.

“Garment workers have been in a very vulnerable position through the pandemic,” Lawreniuk said in an email. “Their already very precarious livelihoods have been stretched further by the continued impacts of on-off factory suspensions, decimating income for over a period of nearly 16 months now.”

Her research suggests that wages have been reduced by 25 percent on average between January and October 2020, largely in part due to a lack of demand, which previously allowed workers to earn an extra $1 per hour of overtime.

Workers interviewed by Lawreniuk told of increased targets, with Cambodia’s low-value manufacturing demanding a more than 80 percent increase in productivity amid degrading working conditions.

A large and often overlooked issue, she said, was the rise in subcontractor factories that didn’t need to abide by International Labor Organization standards. She estimated that some 220,000 Cambodians worked in subcontractor factories in 2020, compared with around 140,000 in 2019.

Another key issue Lawreniuk’s study found was the prevalence of debt. Speaking with 200 workers over the course of 2020 with follow-up questions in January 2021, she found that 63 percent of workers surveyed had outstanding loans and that the average garment worker had outstanding loans valued at $4,731—16 percent of loans were taken out to pay off existing debt.

A worrying 68 percent of those surveyed said they were worse off after the pandemic, while 19 percent claimed to be slightly worse off.

“I felt like screaming and crying loudly,” one worker reportedly told Lawreniuk. “The most significant thing was that I had no money to repay the loan.”

Lawreniuk’s data found that 55 percent of garment workers had eaten less in the month prior to being surveyed due to a lack of money with 44 percent saying this happened often while 27 percent said it happened sometimes.

“They’ve been therefore placed at high risk and been left unable to build up any cushion of economic security to see them through this current period,” Lawreniuk wrote.

“The negative impacts of any lockdown are felt most severely by the poorer segments of the population, which is why the WHO does not advocate lockdowns as a primary control measure,” she wrote.More assistance is urgently needed to protect workers and make sure the current lockdown does not cause further harm to the already vulnerable.”

Related Articles