Like other garment workers across the country, Chheang Thida works long hours for little pay. But her biggest complaint about conditions at her clothing factory is the state of its toilets.
“They are unsanitary and disgusting,” said the 37-year-old industry veteran. “Nobody ever cleans them.”
Garment unions’ most visible public campaigns tend to revolve around the fight to raise the minimum wage. But female factory workers struggle to get traction for their concerns on maternity leave, reproductive health and workplace hygiene, even by unions that represent them.
Although about 86 percent of the country’s more than 600,000 garment workers are women, the majority of union leaders are men—and they don’t visit the ladies’ room.
Sok Thareth, a program officer at the Workers Information Center, an NGO that runs resource centers for garment workers, put it more bluntly.
“They never have periods,” she said of male union leaders. “For them, it’s hard to see that women’s issues are a big challenge for women garment workers.”
The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) project said in its 2015 annual report that while some labor standards have improved, 50 of the factories it monitored engaged in different forms of gender discrimination, including termination based on sex and discrimination against pregnant workers.
Ms. Thareth of the Workers Information Center said that such discrimination was the issue most frequently cited by women visiting the NGO’s centers.
“We get reports that when women get pregnant, it’s really hard for them to work in the factories,” Ms. Thareth said, adding, however, that discrimination can be hard to prove.
“If your work is slower, they will finish the contract by some other excuse. They will not say it’s because of pregnancy,” she said.
Ms. Thida, the garment worker, said this was borne out by her experience.
“The employer always discriminates against pregnant women because in the first month, they feel unwell or have low energy, so they can’t work as normal workers,” she said.
The ILO report also says that one in five factories did not pay their workers’ legally mandated maternity benefits, while the same percentage of factories used short-term contracts to avoid providing workers benefits like maternity leave, a right guaranteed under the Labor Law.
Everyday work in the factories also poses risks to women’s health, Ms. Thareth added, with many workers exposed to high temperatures and chemicals, often in rooms with poor ventilation.
“They don’t care how you work, just how you get the target. They don’t care if you are pregnant,” she said, adding that workers, including those who are pregnant, are often asked to work overtime with few breaks in order to fulfill the factories’ quotas.
Despite these hardships, female factory workers struggle to have their voices heard. While women tend to be active in campaigning on the grassroots level, they lack representation where it matters: at the negotiating table.
“Women are always in the front lines to face threats during demonstrations,” Ms. Thareth said. “But when we see the [union] leaders in the industry, it’s men.”
According to the most recent available data—a 2012 survey of 47 garment labor federations by the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group—only 25 women held leadership posts, compared to 132 men.
Meanwhile, a 2011 survey published by BFC found that women comprised only 30 percent of collective bargaining teams.
“Mostly when they do negotiations at the factory level, they put some demands around wage increase,” Ms. Thareth said. “Women’s issues always go on the agenda as No. 10.”
“Some women get leadership positions, but again they are challenged by a male-dominated system in the upper level of the confederation,” she added.
Yaing Sophorn is one of the rare women who has risen to the top of the union ladder.
She currently serves as president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions. She first became a union activist in 1997 before becoming an official for the Free Trade Union in 2000.
“I could become a leader because I had much experience with unions,” she said, adding, however, that many women are still discouraged from taking on leadership roles. She said that during negotiations, she often faced resistance from her male colleagues.
“I normally try to talk about [women’s issues] when we discuss the minimum wage; however, many male union leaders don’t support it. I think they conclude that women’s opinions are not as necessary as men’s,” Ms. Sophorn said.
Subtle discrimination against women in unions starts at low levels, according to Ms. Sophorn.
“The hard part is when there are elections to choose local union representatives,” she said. When women candidates try to speak up about women’s issues, she said, “The women’s ideas are not supported by the male candidates.”
And although most workers are women, they still end up electing male leaders because of the entrenched tradition of male leadership in unions, Ms. Sophorn said. “They do not have the broadened perspective” that women can also lead.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the sector’s largest independent union, said its members hesitated to elect women leaders because they were seen as less capable.
“[Those] who become the union leaders must be elected by the members. Based on experience, more workers [do] not [feel] secure that women leaders can lead in the union or federation with bad situations,” he said, citing threats and intimidations often received by union leaders.
Though he said women comprised half of all activists in CCAWDU’s constituent unions, they only held 10 to 15 percent of leadership posts at the national level.
Despite the overwhelmingly male composition of its national leadership, Mr. Thorn said his union did pay attention to women’s issues, in particular the rights of pregnant workers, and pushed for factories to provide maternity leave and time off for checkups.
But he also acknowledged that non-gendered issues tended to have broader appeal. “When we increase wage, we increase all together,” he said. “Women’s issues are specific.”
Cultural perceptions of women represent the greatest barrier for women to advance in the workplace, according to Joni Simpson, a senior gender specialist at the ILO.
“One of the main challenges is cultural norms and attitudes towards the opportunities, roles of women and men in society and the economy,” Ms. Simpson wrote in an email.
But changes must come from the unions, too, she said. “We need to see stronger workers’ organizations advocating for both women and men’s needs,” she added.
Ms. Thareth of the Workers Information Center agreed that having more female leadership in unions was critical for improving workers’ lives.
“Women should have the power and right to make decisions, especially to improve conditions in the garment factories,” Ms. Thareth said.
“They think [men] have a strong voice when they take the mic; women are gentle and speak softly,” Ms. Thareth said. “But when we listen to the women, it’s very powerful.”