Sunday, January 5, 2014

Protests in Phnom Penh

Cambodia has been in the news over the weekend after a week of protests.  These protests turned deadly on Friday when 23 protesters were injured and 4 were killed. A mass rally and march were scheduled for today but they never took place because the government banned all public gatherings and evicted the protesters from Freedom Park. These workers are demanding higher wages. There are over 800 garment and shoe factories in Cambodia and they employ 600,000 people, mostly women. Currently, the monthly salary is $80 per month and the government just raised it to $100 per month. However, factory owners don’t recognize this raise. Factories have been shut down and GMAC (Garment Manufactures Association in Cambodia) refuses to reopen until their safety is guaranteed. Workers are demanding a minimum of $160 a month. This salary often covers a household in Phnom Penh as well as family in the provinces.

Many of us view Southeast Asia as a cheap travel destination. When I decided to move here I thought I could make it work on my $300 monthly stipend. But I was wrong. My rent with utilities alone comes close to $200. Food and transportation are well above $100 a month.  I have to supplement my income with at least $200 from my own savings each month. And trust me when I say I try to spend the bare minimum. I can’t even begin to imagine how anyone can survive on just $80 and send money back home. Here is a great chart showing the difference in minimum wage vs. living wage http://www.cleanclothes.org/livingwage/living-wage-versus-minimum-wage

Garment factory workers work long hours in poor conditions to create products they can never afford.  After the events this week, I have really started to think about my shopping habits and the clothes I wear. I only brought a fraction of my clothes to Cambodia, things I don’t really mind ruining and leaving behind.  But after living here for 6 weeks, I have come to realize that I really don’t need everything I have and can easily live with less. Asghar has always pushed for this way of thinking but I always found an excuse to buy a new top or new skirt. Now I see a human life attached to each item of clothing. I see it as something that was made with someone else's sweat and blood.

Why don’t we care? The garment industry and its sweat shops have been in the news for years. Bangladesh alone has received extensive coverage after the factory fires. But nothing has changed. The working conditions are still poor and the wages are still low. We have the power as consumers to demand more. We support this industry blindly and willingly and it is not ok, at least for me and I hope for you too. 


2 comments:

  1. Agree with all that you mentioned in the blog. But there are no easy solutions to this problem, especially in a global economy.

    If the salaries are raised to $160 a month, then it's possible that Cambodia will cease to be an economical destination for all this manufacturing. So you might have a situation in which all these noble citizens will lose their job, instead of having a low paying job. I am not saying that nothing can be done alleviate their miseries but it's easier said than done. What government really needs is to focus on creation of sustainable industrial ecosystem, which gives the whole country an edge, and slowly moves away from being a low wage destination for manufacturing to mass scale economical production model.

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  2. Gaurav, I completely agree but that is a long term solution. Right now the government is just filling its own pockets and not taking care of its people. http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2014/01/future-democracy-cambodia

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