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The Cambodian Crackdown

[ 55 ] January 11, 2014 |

The Cambodian government has pretty much completed its violent crackdown against the apparel industry workers protesting the terrible conditions of their lives as they toil away in unsafe factories for low wages making the clothes you buy and might be wearing as you read this.

GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160. After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.

Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.

“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.

“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained.

Once again, this is why these arguments made by developed world consumers, including many liberals, that Cambodians need to take care of Cambodia if they want to improve their lot is a morally bankrupt argument. When they do try to change the working conditions of their country, they die. Meanwhile, you keep on buying inexpensive Cambodian (or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan) made clothing. The system exists to provide you cheap clothing. Just because apparel corporations have outsourced production overseas does not make you a morally neutral agent in the process.

Comments (55)

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  1. Derelict says:

    All of this was set in motion decades ago when Americans decided they wanted cheap consumer products no matter what the cost.

    • Happy Jack says:

      Do you mean all Americans, or just a subset? I’m trying to remember when that vote was taken.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Also, what form did the decision take? Yes, humans, including Americans, want cheap consumer products no matter what the cost. Was it ever otherwise? What was the English textile industry of 1850 built on, if not abundant cotton from the US South?

        If you want a suggestion for something that might have changed since the ’60s or so, I would propose the shipping container.

        • ploeg says:

          Or maybe environmental regulations. In the ’60s and early ’70s, we as Americans decided that we didn’t want to put out fires on polluted rivers or endure endless smog alerts. Certainly it costs money to install catalytic converters and process industrial wastes properly so you don’t pollute the air, water, and soil (though not as much money as industry touts predicted back in the day). But you don’t worry about environmental regulations so much if you can move operations to a country with a pliant government.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            I’m sure environmental compliance has a cost. I don’t know whether it’s as much as the labor costs that can be saved by going overseas. (And obviously, while exporting a job is at least some kind of gain for the worker that gets it, exporting pollution benefits nobody.) But either way, the cost of going overseas at all has dropped radically, making it much more rewarding to seek those other savings.

      • Derelict says:

        That vote was taken when American television manufacturing began disappearing overseas in the 1970s. The vote continued to be in favor of cheap goods at any cost as American flocked to WalMart through the ’80s and ’90s–even the soon-to-be laid-off textile workers in the Carolinas were thronging to WalMart to buy the cheap offshore-made jeans and shirts available there.

        That vote was also taken in Congress where the likes of Frist, DeLay, and Lott helped ram through bills declaring goods manufactured in the Marrianas Islands could be sold bearing the “Made in America” label–bills that also stripped workers on those islands of nearly all of their rights.

        That vote was taken when NAFTA was ratified. It’s been taken with every GATT agreement, with every G-8 meeting, and over every three-shrimp cocktail in Davos.

        • Vance Maverick says:

          While I don’t admire any of this (and I admit that some of it is clearly choice), I don’t see the point of accusation and recrimination. On the one hand, it’s incomplete as history; on the other, it doesn’t help make things better.

          • Murc says:

            I don’t see the point of accusation and recrimination.

            Accusation and recrimination are vital to a healthy body politic, and the country would be immeasurably better off with a lot more of it and lot less “look forward, not back.”

        • Informant says:

          The Northern Marianas Islands has a United States District Court and appeals from it go to the Ninth Circuit, so it would seem rather bizarre to say it doesn’t qualify as part of “America.”

    • DrDick says:

      That was not much of a choice, as they were driven to economize by stagnant or declining wages over the past 40 years.

  2. LeeEsq says:

    It’s also a repeat of industrial history. One would think that at least one developing country would learn from the mistakes made by previous developing countries.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s arguable they did learn: their over class (and their international financiers) became wealthy, the underclass was overworked underpaid and criminally exploited, and the consumer did not give it a minute’s thought. So everyone (who matters) wins!

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Indeed–the apparel companies learned that the conditions that created the Triangle Fire were those that maximized profit and they’ve been looking to recreate those conditions anywhere they can for 100 years.

        • Nathanael says:

          They seem not to have learned the lessons of 1789 France or 1914 Russia, however. They’ll learn those lessons soon enough. :-(

          • Ahuitzotl says:

            not soon enoug

          • Redwood Rhiadra says:

            No, they won’t. 1789 and 1914 were before the invention of the tank. Revolution is no longer possible against a modern military, unless the rebels have the military support of a more powerful foreign country. Which cannot happen in the U.S.

        • runsinbackground says:

          So, as usual, the solution would be to push through some kind of effective legislation creating effective sanctions against companies that are purchasing sweatshop-made goods overseas for sale in America, rather than relying on some limp-dicked “self-policing” system. Unfortunately, Citizens United v. FEC means that will never happen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; anything after the foundation of the Dutch East India Company was just borrowed time anyway.

    • DrDick says:

      The first world multinationals invest quite heavily in ensuring that the leadership of those countries have no interest in and are incapable of learning those lessons.

  3. Shwell Thanksh says:

    Could reporting requirements similar to those on the use of ‘conflict minerals’ in the supply chains of electronics manufacturers in the US be an avenue for change?

  4. (Shakezula) says:

    Does anyone have a list of clothing lines that don’t involve worker exploitation? I found the list of foods made by unionized companies someone posted before Thanksgiving really helpful.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I don’t believe such a list exists, although I could be wrong. Given how the entire apparel system is created to obscure the involvement of brands in the production process, it would also be pretty hard to put together such a list given the current lack of transparency.

    • mingo says:

      thanks for asking this.
      I have been googling ‘ethical clothing’ and so far, not much looks like it works for me. The biggest problem I have been seeing so far is that their clientele is apparently all 19 years old, extremely thin and lovely. Sadly, I can’t wear those clothes.

      • (Shakezula) says:

        Ethical clothing also runs into the same problem we see with organic food and ethical cosmetics. It just costs more. And part of what you’d be paying for is the cachet of owning something with an Ethically Made label on it. It is designer wear for the socially aware set.

        So – and this is hearkening back to college – you’d have people declaring we shouldn’t use soap that is tested on animals. Sure. But for some people that would mean they could only bathe once a week.

        So I guess the other question is, are there steps people can take other than walking around naked (which could be alarming enough to force action but concerns about frost bite and sunburn are a factor), that will help fight employee exploitation?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Right–the solution has to be general, improve the plight of workers, and allow everyday people to easily be able to purchase clothing that didn’t come from sweatshop labor.

          Putting direct pressure on the apparel companies has to be central to these answers. The very first step is applying that pressure so that American apparel companies sign on to the agreements that European manufacturers are agreeing to. That’s hardly the final step, but it is sensible, clear, and with a relatively easily achievable end.

          • (Shakezula) says:

            Wait, you’re basically saying that we need X – Clothes that people of all incomes can afford and don’t involve sweatshop labor* (because I’m including the material in the process). Before we can do Y – Put pressure on the Bad Actors by not buying their product.

            But X doesn’t exist.

            So is there some other form of pressure available or is this just a closed loop?

            *And to clarify one thing – even expensive clothes are made in sweatshops, so it isn’t just a matter of wanting cheap clothes.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              No, I’m neither saying that boycotts are necessarily the best idea nor am I saying that we need to establish those clothes before people start boycotting if they are to do so. I’m saying that we have to work toward a better system by pressuring politicians and companies in a variety of ways and that the idea of second-hand clothing as a meaningful part of the solution just isn’t convincing at all.

              • (Shakezula) says:

                OK, right, so. What, in your experience or studies is an effective form of pressure? With pols asking what their position is and if it is wrong, indicating what position it would take to get my vote. With companies? I don’t know since all they want is money. So if I don’t say – I’m not going to buy your stuff, what do I say?

                Also, who said anything about second hand clothing?

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  I think there can be a number of different models, including picketing outside stores, handing out literature, exploring ways to make connections with organized labor in affected industries and countries, etc. The boycott can also be effective.

                  To be clear, I am not saying I have all the answers by any means. I am just trying to help move toward those answers. But I think this is a multi-decade project.

    • pseudalicious says:

      EthixMerch has a bunch. You don’t get many options. Certainly not many that actually look good. And the only one they list as paying a living wage (including the union shops!) is Alta Gracia — I forget what country they’re made in, but basically the cost of things are so low that a living wage there is like 2 bucks an hour or whatever. American Apparel, imo, pays a living wage but then you have Dov Charney’s sexual harassment. This isn’t really a problem where we can effectively vote with our dollars… it’s going to involve pushing for legislation.

  5. Anonymous says:

    At least I can feel good about buying American Apparel. Wait…

  6. Boycotting the garment industry is not the form of support that Cambodia’s garment unions and political opposition are asking for.

    The garment industry represents over a third of Cambodia’s economy; over half of non-farm work is in factories. The rest of Cambodia’s economy is two sectors, tourism and aid. The US and other donor nations have ‘helped’ Cambodia into a 4th decade of one-party rule, under which the rights to vote, organize, speak and even gather in groups are unenforceable. The last time the regime felt this much pressure, 1997, there were bodies floating to the surface for 2 years.

    Our foreign policy requires US aid, and military training, to compete with China’s. Because the alternative is effectively rule by Chinese conglomerates, Cambodians are almost surely better off today than they would have been without any interference from the West (US, AUS, France and Belgium add up to 1/3 of the economy).

    For the first time since 1979, there is a credible movement by the opposition party to press for fair elections. Be nice if some of the outrage could be aimed instead toward begging for help in making Cambodia work for Cambodians from Sam Powers’ desk at the UN. NGOs that have been helpful in the past include the Carter Center, which refused to certify last summer’s election, and the IRI.

    I appreciate that labor is Erik’s beat, but what’s happening in Cambodia is not solely an example of typical 21st century labor conflict. It’s also an example of a failed state propped up by “aid”.

    This economist’s summary of the specifics is too expensive to read but his TED talk pretty well sums it up if you’re not a prospective MA in economics.

    There’s also a fantastic short documentary called ‘The Trap of Saving Cambodia’ that isn’t available online but the trailer tells the story.

  7. Alan Tomlinson says:

    For what it’s worth, I have reason to believe that Patagonia, primarily an “outdoor clothing” firm makes significant efforts to make sure that their contract employees are treated ethically and that their manufacturing processes create as little environmental damage as possible.

    Long ago, I worked for a company that sold their clothing but otherwise I have no relationship to the firm. I do buy as many of my summer shirts there as possible.


    Alan Tomlinson

    • pseudalicious says:

      You wanna check if they use WRAP or not — if they do, it’s just lip service. It’ll be in the social responsibility area of their website.

  8. Joshua says:

    Cambodians made the conscious decision to accept these crackdowns because they want the jobs. It’s a risk-reward trade-off they made in a rational manner, you see.

  9. Paula says:

    I buy most of my textile clothing second-hand. Does that count?

    Also, I have actually thought about this, and tried to avoid clothing made in specific countries, and even consciously tried to restrict myself to retailers who at least made attempts at ethical manufacturing. With subcontracting, yes, this is basically impossible. H&M was a great brand — affordable, stylish — until they weren’t.

    But yeah, I don’t sew. Nor do I make and preserve my own food.

    You have many people in that position of wanting to be better consumers but having neither the means nor the time nor the information to do it.

    People shop at Wal-Mart not because they enjoy making fellow workers suffer but because it’s cheap and easy. The post appears to be misdirected because 1) the LGM audience who are already pretty aware of the things you’re talking about, 2) the fact that most people who need to hear this probably can’t afford to start shopping more consciously or probably don’t even read this blog and 3) OP writer pretty much admits in the comments that to even generate a list of ethical clothing companies is really, really difficult.

    In any case, I guess if you want consumers to “do something” like “put pressure” on the larger retailers, maybe the first thing to do is to come up with that list. I could certainly use it.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I have rather strong opinions against the idea of second-hand clothing as a solution because it is not scalable. Like too much consumer activism (or for that matter 3rd party vanity presidential campaigns), it allows the consumer to opt out of the system and then claim a moral high ground that in fact doesn’t exist. I’m not saying you are doing this, but I have run across people before saying these very things and offering second-hand clothing as a real alternative to sweatshop labor.

      What I’m saying about a list of clothing companies that responsibly source clothes is that they probably don’t exist. As for the comment about the original post, am I not supposed to talk about this because LGM readers know this already? I’m not so sure that they do and I’ve received pushback before by people who say the Cambodians or Bangladeshis need to create the change they want in their own countries. But even outside of that, what precisely are you saying? That such blog posts are worthless because they don’t by themselves transform the world? The latter part of that statement is of course true, but the former is not. Supporting United Students Against Sweatshops or protesting in front of your local Wal-Mart to sign up to the monitoring program agreed to by some European companies is certainly more productive than reading a blog post, but how is this blog post stopping people from doing that? Hopefully it, and my forthcoming book, will encourage people to do these very things.

      • Paula says:

        My main point of annoyance is this para:

        “Meanwhile, you keep on buying inexpensive Cambodian (or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese or Sri Lankan) made clothing. The system exists to provide you cheap clothing. Just because apparel corporations have outsourced production overseas does not make you a morally neutral agent in the process.”

        Your’re claiming a moral high ground here. If you’re going to call people morally suspect, you should provide alternatives to the status quo that they might attempt within their range of available resources. At least people who brag about using cloth baby diapers are teaching by example. But, I did not know about your upcoming book, so if there’s a list of ethical retailers in there that I can take on my next shopping trip, then more power to you.

        Also, I buy second-hand not because it’s “dropping out” but because it’s cheaper than buying new at any department store, including Wal-Mart.

        To be honest, I don’t know anyone who’s into the shared goods/resources thing who’s doing it b/c of some political goal. We’re doing it to save money, and there’s much less of a stigma because of the recession. There are many people who don’t have a second-hand place around. But if you live near a major urban center, trying to find second-hand goods is a reasonable activity to engage with if it will save you money. I don’t know what you mean by “not scalable”, but second-hand goods shopping is something that many people have been doing.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I am not claiming a moral high ground. I am just as complicit as anyone else in the United States. I benefit from a process that kills workers. I am trying to help solve that problem.

          But the idea that if there’s isn’t a clear and easy choice for consumers to make, I or others criticizing the system are failing does not work. I am not providing a list of clothing manufacturers I approve of in the book because they don’t exist. I am suggesting points of pressure people can take, but just because you don’t have time to work on this issue (which is highly understandable) doesn’t mean that I have failed or that it is not a major issue. Not everything is a series of consumer choices. Sometimes we have to fight to radically alter the entire system. Apparel capitalism is one of those times.

          And to be clear, I have no problem buying second-hand clothing. That’s a good thing and there should be a bigger market in it. But as a solution for the masses to fight against apparel exploitation it doesn’t work because a) there isn’t that much second hand clothing to go around and b) Bangladeshis and Cambodians need jobs.

        • Shakezula says:

          That’s Loomis’ style. Absent any alternate solutions as to how you can make it better it can come across as internal trolling, but I think that’s unfair.

          Me, I like to imagine Loomis in a cape and leotard with a big WJ – Worker Justice – across the chest (the ensemble is of course made from cotton he grew and harvested himself). Every so often he swoops down, perches atop a telephone pole in a busy street and thunders “YOU! YOU ARE PART OF THE REASON WORKERS ARE EXPLOITED!”

          And then, while we’re looking around startled he gives a mighty HARUMPH that sends us bowling ass over teakettle and swoops off again. And as we pick ourselves up we dust ourselves off we take a moment to think about it.

  10. cpinva says:

    I’m not sure what you can you do, with a gov’t bought by the industry. absent an actual revolution, the only action we can take, is to refuse to buy clothes produced in those countries, assuming they’re even identified. I make it a point to try and identify the source country, of clothes I buy, and pass on those I know to be scumbags. of course, then I’m screwing over some poor bastard in that scumbag country.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      As I suggest in the forthcoming book, you have to work to empower the workers on the ground, wherever they may be, to use international courts and courts in the country of corporate origin to fight for their rights. Refusing to buy clothes in given countries basically does nothing. The workers themselves do not support such boycotts. Instead, we have to put pressure on apparel companies to live up to international standards, support the unions of these workers in their goals, and strive to fight the companies and politicians to create a system that empowers those workers to sue if international labor and environmental standards are violated.

  11. Shakezula says:

    When DOES your book come out?

  12. e.a.f. says:

    capital can move at a moment’s notice, when they think they can reduce costs. They move to countries where the government has little or no oversight or cares about working conditions.

    We in Canada and U.S.A. loose jobs and taxes. Unemployed people can’t pay taxes. What we can do is simply not buy clothing from countries which do not pay their workers a fair./living wage. Buy Canadian, Buy American. You get a better quality product. You provide jobs for your neighbours. Yes it may cost a bit more but you know what, you don’t need 20 white tee shirts at $10 a piece.
    Some high end brands produce their products overseas now and are still charging prices as if they were being Made in America.

    By buying made in Canada or if not available, made in U.S.A. I’ve saved a bundle. Cut right down on the shopping. My quality of life has not deteriorated and found small local retailers frequently carry clothing made in North America.

    We have become consumed by buying cloths. It isn’t good for the enviornment and its not good for the bank account.

  13. Tyler says:

    I work in the apparel industry. And Scott may be slightly exaggeration about good apparel companies not existing, but not by much. There is a tiny fraction of clothing made responsibly. But it is such a small amount of overall production that it might as well not exist. Even if the popularity of responsibly made goods sky rocketed, we couldn’t begin to meet demand and maintain standards. Without those standards being universally enforced, it’s virtually impossible to create clothing responsibly at a competitive price. If everyone who touches your garment (designer, patternmaker, grader, cutter, sewer, shipping, salesperson, store owner, etc) makes a living wage, then a dress shirt will cost $100+ depending on fabric quality and sizing. That is simply a number that most people cant afford. We aren’t going to change things by shopping smarter. Instead of shopping, call your congress person.

    Re: second hand. The garbage being produced by h&m. Forever 21, gap, old navy, etc doesn’t last as long as the clothes made thirty years ago. The quality second hand market is shrinking rapidly. No one is making tomorrow’s vintage clothing today. In Portland, ground zero for second hand clothing, we have seen the rise of high end vintage as a result. Second hand is also not scalable.

  14. [...] Guns and Money links to a report on a crackdown on striking Cambodian garment workers and remarks on a 1986 paper [...]

  15. Drew says:

    You need to target the big buyers. Like, the Useless Parcel Service doesn’t give two fucks if your package is late or lost. You call and complain, they’ll give you some perfunctory explanation (never an apology) and tell you to file a claim (the customer service equivalent of telling someone to fuck off). You call amazon or, who ships millions of packages with them? UPS is going to care a little more about large companies being pissed at them.

    When I was in college we (many of us) pressured the school into not using sweatshop-made clothing for their athletic merchandise. Stuff like that.

  16. [...] similar to the U.S.–a lot of wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few. For the poor, the apparel-elite state is more than happy to send the police after you for organizing. And if that doesn’t happen, your factory may collapse and leave you [...]

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