Meah Kunthea knew it was wrong to lie about her age when she was trying to land a factory job at Best Honour International Garment Ltd two years ago.
But Meah Kunthea, 15 at the time, had responsibilities. Her four family members, living in Banteay Meanchey province, were looking to her to earn money for them.
Though she was very small, she had fake documents from her village saying she was 18, and the managers at Best Honour accepted them. She has been working at the factory for two years, sewing clothes for retail giants like Gap Inc, and is now a group leader, responsible for handing out paychecks to workers in her section.
But since the October broadcast of the BBC show “Panorama” that showed some Cambodian garment factories doing business with Gap and Nike were using child labor and committing other violations, Meah Kunthea’s future and that of thousands of others like has been uncertain.
Officials from Gap were recently in Phnom Penh to review employee records at the 25 factories that do business with the company to make sure employees are at least 18, the minimum working age under Gap’s code of conduct. Cambodian labor laws require workers to be at least 15.
Since Meah Kunthea is 17, she was told by factory managers she will be fired, although an exact termination date hasn’t been given yet. Thirty-seven workers at Best Honour have already been fired, and more are likely to follow as Gap officials and factory managers sift through 1,200 employee records.
“I’m very worried because I have to feed my family,” Meah Kunthea said, adding that her mother often comes to Phnom Penh to collect a portion of her wages. “What if I have to work at a restaurant and then they sell me to a brothel. I know virgins are very popular now so I could be sold for $300.”
The BBC meant to force Nike and Gap to reveal that their business practices weren’t as perfect as they seemed. But the garment factory workers, who have the most to lose, have become the hardest hit as a result of the program.
And while the impact of the BBC show on the garment industry in Cambodia remains unclear, one thing is for certain: Jobs have been lost and will be lost.
“The BBC piece was a travesty,” said Neil Hawkins, country director of CARE Cambodia, an NGO that works on health issues at five garment factories. “The show should have been called ‘BBC causes loss of jobs.’”
Although Hawkins and others acknowledged instances of child labor and other violations of working standards exist, they say the alternatives are even less attractive. Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and job opportunities for women, who are still treated like second-class citizens, are slim.
The $45 minimum wage earned by garment factory workers is three times the government salary given to doctors and judges. And many factories offer modern conveniences, such as air conditioning, flush toilets, that the workers lack at home.
“You have to look at the garment jobs in relative terms. What is better: Working at a garment factory or working out in the rice paddy or in a brothel?” Hawkins said. “Those are the choices. Of course we are against child labor. But the fact is the garment industry has helped this country in reducing poverty.”
Indeed, the garment industry has been a tremendous boost for the Cambodian economy, employing 150,000 workers, who represent a little more than 1 percent of the population.
“This is not a black and white issue,” said Paul Freer of International Management & Investment Consultants Ltd. “The Western world perhaps doesn’t think about this issue as a whole. Working at a garment factory is a way of survival here when you don’t have the luxury of going to school or have a social safety net.”
When Cambodia began opening up to the world after three decades of war with the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, it had little to offer foreign investors. Sok Siphana, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, described Cambodia at that time as a craftsmanship society. The country lacked the legal framework, adequate infrastructure, political stability and security needed to attract outside investment.
However, Cambodia did have cheap labor —which attracted the garment industry. Ironically, June Textiles Co Ltd, featured in the BBC “Panorama” episode, was the first garment factory to open up in Cambodia, starting with 200 workers in 1992.
“Cambodia has constraints in attracting investors, so the garment industry has had an important impact on development,” says Urooj Malik, country representative of the Asian Development Bank.
In 1995, when the industry began to take off, garment exports totaled $20 million. Last year, the factories shipped $600 million worth of products to mainly US and European markets, accounting for about 90 percent of the country’s total exports.
And although foreign investment overall has fallen in recent years, the garment industry continues to grow, with a 38 percent increase in investment for the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period last year.
“The garment industry brought us from being a very sick person to being an OK person,” Sok Siphana said. “You can have idealism that other industries will invest here, but until you can achieve that, the garment industry is the only bread and butter we have on the table now.”
And, Sok Siphana said, when the garment industry is hit, so is Cambodia.
“This basket represents 90 percent of our eggs, so we all better take care to make sure it doesn’t break,” he said. “When they pull out, we’ll all be in big trouble. Then it won’t matter who’s to blame.”
Factory managers said they now worry about the future of Cambodia’s biggest industry as a result of the BBC piece. International retailers do not want to be seen as doing business in a country known to use child labor, and suffer the media backlash that could follow.
“This affects the whole industry in terms of future potential orders,” says Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association, which has 217 members. “Other buyers are sensitive to the bad publicity, and they will pull out. The workers can thank BBC for the layoffs. And in the meantime, the development of Cambodia will be delayed.”
A factory manager at Best Honour said he didn’t want to fire the underage girls because he knows they are poor and need jobs, but he also has an obligation to abide by the rules of Gap, which he described as one of the factory’s best buyers.
June managers are in the process of figuring out how to make up for the withholding of payment from Gap and the loss of the Gap and Nike contracts. Whatever the factory decides, it will have a negative impact on June’s 3,800 workers.
“It’s a big problem for us, and BBC is not concerned about this,” said CK Chang, June’s deputy general manger. “We don’t know the domino effect yet.”
Chan Navy, a 20-year-old June worker, said she is worried she might be fired because of the BBC piece. She says there are rumors going around that June employees might not have any more clothes to sew.
She said she is worried about what the world outside garment factories would hold for her. Before getting the job at June, Chan Navy was unknowingly sold to a brothel, she said. “I want to work for June for a long time,” she said. “It’s easy to work there, compared to what else I could be doing.”
Paul Kenyon, the BBC reporter who worked on the child labor story, defends the “Panorama” program, saying the loss of jobs should be blamed on Nike and Gap. He said BBC wanted to test whether what Nike and Gap told their consumers in the West was true, and the companies failed.
“I and BBC regret the job losses, but we don’t think it’s our fault,” Kenyon said. “The last thing we anticipated was that Gap and Nike would pull out. They completely missed the point. They should just admit that they are trying their best, but the situation isn’t perfect. And they should stay and help the girls.”
The underage June employee featured in the BBC piece later held a press conference saying she lied to the Western journalists about her age, telling them she was 12 when she is really 18. She said BBC reporters offered $10 for an interview with an underage worker. The BBC has denied offering a bounty for the interview, saying they only paid money to workers after interviewing them, and then only to compensate them for their time.
But the public relations damage had already been done, and the US companies say they could not afford to continue doing business with June.
Vada Manager, director of global issues management for Nike, said his company is fulfilling its order with June through this month but will terminate its contract after that, partly because of the BBC piece. Then Nike will monitor June’s progress in complying with the company’s code of conduct.
“Women have few alternatives in countries like Cambodia, and I don’t think the Western media understand that,” Manager said. “It’s a difficult issue. I understand hundreds of people show up for just a few openings at Nike factories.”
Gap spokesman Jack Dougherty said Gap is also continuing to negotiate with June.
Despite the BBC portrayal of the garment industry here, most experts conclude Cambodia does not have a serious child labor problem. Because there are enough adults who are desperate for jobs, the industry has not had to look to children to find workers.
A week after the BBC show aired, the US government increased Cambodia’s garment quota by an additional 4 percent, bringing the total quota to 9 percent. The garment quota—the amount of merchandise foreign contractors can sell in the US market each year—is based on the assessment of labor conditions.
Andrew Samet, undersecretary for
international affairs at the US Department of Labor, said during a visit to Cambodia that the country had made significant progress in complying with international labor standards.
And it is difficult to catch those who do slip through the system, says Mar Sophea, the national project coordinator on child labor for the International Labor Organization. It’s known that anything can be bought in Cambodia for the right price, he says, including documents that say an underage worker is 18.
Because people are so desperate for jobs, they will do almost anything to gain employment, Mar Sophea says. “Job opportunities are really limited, and economic activity in the countryside is nothing,” he says. “It’s not the intention of the garment employers to hire underage workers. The workers
themselves lie about it.”
Hawkins of CARE Cambodia says the best solution is for the apparel industry, the factory, the workers and the government to work together to help these underage girls with education and health care, instead of just turning them away because they are legally too young to have a job.
Chan Thy, 25, says her job at June has helped her support her three children and allowed her to even hire someone to watch her kids during the day while she is at work.
She says garment factory jobs are very good for women, because it gives girls another opportunity as opposed to being a prostitute.
“Most of these garment workers, including me, come from poor families so we are very worried what will happen to us now,” she says. “I don’t know what Nike and Gap is. I’ve only heard they are expensive. I just know I want them to stay.”