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From brothel to sweatshop? Questions on labour trafficking in Cambodia

Garment manufacturers in Cambodia benefit when anti-trafficking programmes portray clothing manufacturing as the only viable and, crucially, moral labour opportunity available.

Sex workers' rights organisations in Phnom Penh in 2007. Melissa Gira Follow/Flickr. Creative Commons.

I wandered into my first anti-trafficking NGO in Cambodia last winter in the same manner in which I had entered journalism some years earlier: I was curious and it was there. Then suddenly I found myself agreeing to a surprisingly long list of stipulations in order to be granted entry to the facility as a member of the press. Chief among them was that I not photograph or ask questions of clients, which set off my independent media alarm: the interesting story is always the one you’re told doesn’t exist.

My concerns were, and remain, twofold: that the wall between clients and the press positions the organisational version of these women’s life stories as irreproachable. As an American who travelled to Cambodia regularly, I had often seen how English-speaking officials frequently misrepresented Khmer women’s stories, whether out of language differences, Western presumption, or genuine empathy. My other concern was more personal: being unable to photograph or ask detailed questions meant I was banned from doing a good job as a reporter, whose primary job is relaying the stories of others.

These concerns faded as I entered the main facility, however, replaced by larger, all encompassing one. What I saw before me was not the roomful of Cambodian women picking up the life skills necessary to rebuild post-trafficking that I had expected to see. What I saw before me was a garment factory, albeit a small one, full stop.

This was familiar terrain. Of the previous seven years writing about women’s issues in Cambodia, six of them had been devoted to looking at the national garment industry, its ties to the US, and its total dominance over the economic life of women in the country. The industry is the third largest in Cambodia, but directly supports the second-largest: agriculture. Women from the provinces are sent off to work in the factories with the express purpose of supporting family farms. That the factories pay only a percentage of a living wage neither stops the nearly half-million workers from enduring long hours, unsafe conditions, and difficult labour, nor prevents them from sending sometimes three-quarters of their monthly wages back home. Some 70 percent of their output is bound for the US market, creating a strong, interwoven economic bond between the two nations that is largely hidden from the naked eye.

For many women, the only viable alternative to factory life is in Cambodia’s tourist sector, the country’s biggest industry. Running a hotel, food cart, or restaurant are some of the only economic options for women in a country with deeply entrenched gender norms (however slowly they may be changing). The sex trade presents another alternative, however in Cambodia this is geared more for the domestic market then for foreign clientele, despite what you might read in the press.

In 2008, under pressure from the US, Cambodia passed the Human Trafficking Law. The vague language of this law essentially criminalised forced labour and sexual exploitation, and cast sex workers as victims. Organisations in the field had already been under siege prior to this, as American funding for HIV/AIDS programmes and other projects was frequently withheld due to their support of sex workers and sex workers’ rights. By 2008, few organisations remained to interpret the new legislation.

Standing in the Phnom Penh-based NGO among the 300+ clients busily assembling garments and other textiles, I wondered how many would self-identify as trafficking victims, although I had been prohibited from asking them. I wondered how many had worked in the factories, too, yet I could not ask this either. I specifically wondered how many clients the organisation served that had left the factories to do sex work—not a terribly common career move, although I’d met several women by then who had made it—only to discover that exit hinged on re-entering the industry in which they’d seen no future. I could certainly not ask this, although even in the factories I’d seen garment workers more excited about their jobs. It might have been the pay, which was even worse than the going rate in the garment industry. Factories offered a monthly minimum wage at the time that was approximately 53 percent of a living wage, while the NGO paid workers only a fraction of this for the same labour.

Who benefits from a system in which women are placed in low-paying, high-risk jobs? Certainly not the NGO’s clients. Whether former at-will sex workers or trafficking victims, being coerced into ‘reputable’ work that makes its profit from devalued, underpaid women’s labour is not a step up.  It can’t be the NGO, either, the staff of which must be aware that their clients have needs completely unmet by the so-called brothel-to-sweatshop pipeline—an inaccurate but convenient phrase.

The primary winners are, of course, garment factories and their apparel-brand clients. Both benefit from a system that presents their low-paying employment opportunities in unsafe conditions as the only viable, legal, and moral jobs available.

If their degree of involvement in anti-trafficking initiatives is any indication, the garment industry benefits a lot from the current paradigm. Many clothing companies provide Cambodian anti-trafficking NGOs with financial and material support. Somaly Mam’s own AFESIP, for example, has its own retail outlet in Phnom Penh. Janet Rivett-Carnac—Gap’s VP of Global Sourcing—sat on the The Somaly Mam Foundation’s board when it was still in operation. Agape International Missions (AIM), featured recently on CNN reports about the scourge of sex trafficking in Cambodia, boasts Ken Peterson, the CEO of clothing retailer Apricot Lane, as a board member. Ram Gidoomal, on the board of International Justice Mission, runs the fair-trade apparel company and development charity Traidcraft, while Curtis Lind, of Columbia Sportswear Company, sits on the board of Shared Hope International.

There’s more. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, creators of the book and film Half the Sky, were former close associates of Somaly Mam and lead propagandists of the American Rescue Industry. They are funded by the Nike Foundation, the former president of Time’s Style & Entertainment Group Fran Hauser—now an investor in an ethical fashion startup—and IKEA. The last of these doesn’t produce garments, of course, just the products in which we store them.

And this is just Cambodia, where the government stands so strongly opposed to workers’ rights that police have shot protestors demanding higher wages. How are state economic interests supported by anti-trafficking initiatives where the connections between the two are less evident? To what degree do these initiatives cater to the needs of the state over the needs of the clients they purport to serve?

These are questions we cannot answer. Yet.


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