Eight years ago, Lo Koon Piu left Hong Kong to set up a garment factory in Kandal province, leaving behind his family.
Living more than 1,000 km from home, the owner of Wing Ying garment factory struggles to stay focused on his business.
“It’s a lie if I say I don’t [miss them],” Mr. Lo said of his wife and relatives in Hong Kong. “But I’m a man and I have to support my family.”
“We call this ‘lonely money,’” he said of his work in Cambodia. “We are earning the ‘lonely money.’”
As the country’s garment factories shuttered during nationwide protests in the sector in December and January, workers, unions, brands and industry bodies clamored to have their voices heard.
But one of the most influential groups, factory owners and managers, stayed largely silent.
About 65 percent of garment factories are owned by investors from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. These middlemen in the global garment supply chain pay the salaries of more than half a million Cambodians and call the shots in an industry that accounts for some 80 percent of exports leaving the country.
Mr. Lo, who supplies high-end brands Calvin Klein and Armani, said only some of the 20 Chinese managers at his factory could communicate with his 800-strong Cambodian workforce.
“For basic stuff, I can understand, but I can’t really speak [Khmer] because I don’t really need to learn the language now,” he said. “When I was young, I wanted to talk to more local people, to meet different people. Now I am old, it’s not necessary to speak the local language,” said Mr. Lo, who claimed to be in his 60s.
But although they may not communicate directly with the people making the products they are shipping out of the country, the Chinese business community pays keen attention to the situation facing Cambodia’s working class.
Lak Chee Meng, news editor of the Chinese-language Sin Chew Daily newspaper, said the Chinese community is closely attuned to issues affecting the country’s political stability and economy.
“I can observe they are monitoring the situation and leaders from governing and opposition political party more closely than locals,” he said via email.
But many factory owners live a life far removed from that of their Cambodian workers, mixing predominately with other factory owners who speak their language, and indulging in the same kinds of pursuits they might at home—karaoke, Mahjong (a popular game of strategy), and dining at Chinese restaurants.
Lu Wei Gang, the Chinese owner of Compress Holdings garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, says there is “no difference” between his life here and in his home province of Guangdong.
“When there are festivals in China, we will go to Chinese restaurants together. We also go to karaoke sometimes,” he said.
“Because of us having to come so far to Cambodia we should help each other to make life easier, not just spending time on work, otherwise we would be very lonely.”
Mr. Lu set up his factory, which produces jeans for export to the U.S., Canada and Europe, three years ago after working in China’s textile industry for decades.
Although he rarely sees his family in Guangdong, Mr. Lu, unlike many of his associates, says he appreciates life in Cambodia—the warm weather, welcoming people and air quality among the country’s positive aspects.
“I think it’s because of the language barrier that makes my friends feel bad about the country,” Mr. Lu said.
“I personally don’t agree that just because you don’t understand someone, you can say that someone is not nice. It’s just difficult to communicate and understand each other.”
Cheaper labor and the lower price of materials in Cambodia brought Mo Chang, the Chinese owner of A M M Garment factory, to the country two years ago.
But Ms. Mo says she is now facing rising costs. Just last month, the 500 workers at her factory in Pur Senchey district stopped working to demand higher salaries.
“I hope that strikes will not happen so often,” she said. “I think there are a lack of systems here. Everything is chaotic.”
According to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, 2013 saw the highest number of strikes in the sector ever, not including the nationwide protests that were lethally suppressed in January.
“[W]orkers here often ask for what they want but they don’t contribute so much,” Ms. Mo said. “It’s quite hard to run a factory here.”
Ms. Mo, who is from China’s Jiangsu province, said her life in Cambodia is mostly devoted to work.
“I spend most of my [spare] time on the Internet to update on what is happening in China,” she said.
“Sometimes I spend time with the Chinese [management] from the factory, for example, having dinner together,” she added. “But in general it’s not very pleasant to live here because they lack the things we have in China, especially the variety of food.”
Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser at Better Factories Cambodia, said cultural misunderstandings between garment workers and foreign managers sometimes led to industrial disputes.
“That’s one of the reasons that for a long time Better Factories has tried to train Cambodian supervisors…so that more of the Chinese and foreign supervisors can go home,” she said.
“It’s not only good for the Cambodians, it’s also good for the factories because it’s cheaper,” she added.
Ms. Tucker said many lower-level foreign managers seemed to have an even more regimented lifestyle than their bosses.
“For a supervisor, not the general manager but the managerial level expatriates, it’s quite a limited existence,” she said. “Usually they live onsite, they work onsite—they’re just living and working—they don’t necessarily explore Cambodia or get out that much.”
Earlier this week, a fire ripped through the Chinese-owned Chang Sheng garment factory in Pur Senchey district, killing one of 10 Chinese supervisors living in an on-site dorm. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
Simon Hsiao, the Taiwanese manager of the Best Season Textile factory in Kompong Chhnang province, oversees 10,000 workers at his factory.
“You can’t really compare the two countries [Cambodia and Taiwan] because they are at different levels,” he said. “Cambodia is still developing, while Taiwan is a more developed country.”
Although he says he has seen major developments since he moved to Phnom Penh six years ago, including better infrastructure, Mr. Hsiao has no plans for his family to join him.
“Living standards in Taiwan are so much better so I think they should stay there,” he said.
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