Two weeks ago I bought a new pair of trousers at the market in Siem Reap, by far the most touristy place in Cambodia, as it is the gateway to Angkor. It’s the first garment I bought here. I usually wear skirts in this hot climate, but sometimes pants are just easier to go out with. These trousers are actually very simple, they don’t have buttons or zip, they’re tied together by straps of the same fabric the trousers are made of. The outside of the legs is not stitched together, the front and the back fall over each other, so it’s very loose and comfortable to wear. The fabric is a light pink silk, with patterns in a slightly darker colour woven into it. They were sold as “real Cambodian trousers”, but I doubt it.
In Cambodia the weaving of silk is an ancient craft, and these days there are still many people weaving silk as a profession in the same ways it has been done for a long time. They use the looms their parents and grandparents used and make the patterns and fabrics their ancestors made, dating back at least to the ancient Angkor Empire. Traditionally weaving was the task of women, but as it became more and more a business, men became involved in it as well, and nowadays quite often it is a family affair. Most of this silk is not sold to large companies but to local or regional retailers who sell it at local markets or get garments made of it to sell at local markets. It’s nice to think that my trousers are made of this locally produced silk, but they’re probably not. There were a lot of similar trousers at that market in Siem Reap, in many different colours. That suggests that they are factory made instead of handmade, which the local producers would not be able to do. Moreover, the colour and pattern of the silk don’t match the traditional Cambodian motives. A search on the internet reveals that the motif is Thai, not Cambodian, so probably the fabric is made in a Thai factory.
Where the fabric is probably from Thailand, the stitching can very well have been done in Cambodia, where the price of labour is cheaper than in Thailand. The garment industry in Cambodia, just like in other countries, is based on female labour. Poor girls coming from the country-side are the main labourers in these factories. Working in these factories is a chance for them to earn an income, to support their families. But it will be short-term labour as they will get worn out by the work soon. That’s not seen as a problem because after a few years of work in the factory they are expected to get married and take care of their family anyway. In the Cambodian situation, the effect on the girls is worse than just the effect on their body. The attraction of this work, the money they can earn with it, is one of the main reasons that girls are doing much worse in secondary and tertiary education than boys (while there is hardly any difference in primary education). Girls drop out of school to go working in the factories, stimulated to do that by their families who don’t value girls’ education as much as boys’ education. This limits the possibilities for their future because for most professions at least a diploma from secondary school is needed.
In any case, it will not be the women who stitched the trousers that make a profit from it. The owners of the factories are mostly Chinese or Korean businessmen, and they are the ones earning the high profits. There is a change going on though. The garment workers have been protesting together over the last year to get better pay and succeeded to some extent. Government raised the minimum wage for the garment industry substantially. It’s still not enough to support a family, but as one of the factory owners put it, that’s not a problem because “there’s always overtime”. The garment workers even managed to get attention for improvement of labour circumstances and health problems. Striking is that globalisation helped the improvement taking place. Usually (and rightly so), globalisation is blamed for causing this bad labour circumstances in developing countries, because the costs need to be as low as possible. After the wake-up call from the disasters in the garment industry in Bangladesh, this time garment workers in Cambodia have been supported by consumers in developed countries, who started to protest in front of their local stores. That worked because companies ultimately listen to their customers and value their reputation. Could it be that we don’t just think about our wallets?