A new library aimed at boosting literacy among garment workers was inaugurated at a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Tuesday, with much of the talk centering on how literature could benefit workers after life at the factory.
The Library Resource Center, part of a project funded by literacy NGO Sipar and the French Development Agency (AFD), was opened at the the Japan Rocks garment factory inside the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone. It is the first such center to be built as part of the program, which envisions the establishment of a further 18 libraries across the country by mid-2017.
The project aims to aid garment workers in their “professional development” by improving their access to literature, according to a press release.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Kasuga Tadashi, general manager of Japan Rocks, said that due to the low level of education among many workers, he hoped the library would improve their performance in the factory and “help the industry grow.”
In a speech, however, Labor Ministry Secretary of State Huy Han Song, said he hoped the books would further their development even beyond the garment sector.
“I’d like to say something a little different…. If you are interested in reading certain books [about] raising animals, you can come here to read about that skill and afterward, maybe you can leave your job here and start to do your own business raising animals,” Mr. Han Song said to the workers.
“Some of you are illiterate or can read a little bit. You have the opportunity to read at the Library Resource Center—maybe you can strengthen your English and maybe one day you’ll become an English teacher. Do you want to change your skill to be an English teacher?” he said.
Workers interviewed on Tuesday said they were looking forward to browsing the new offerings—some 1,200 Khmer-language titles ranging from cookbooks to math textbooks to glossy fashion magazines. Mr. Han Song’s speech seemed to have struck a chord, and many said they were interested in how the library could educate them in skills they would use once they had left their stations and returned to their home provinces.
“I will use the books to get a better general knowledge, for my own sake, but also to share with my family. I think the more that we read, the more we gather skills, which means we can leave the factory,” said 19-year-old Sorn Sreyleak.
“I would like to be a grocery seller, so I’m looking forward to reading the recipe books and food magazines,” she added.
Sry Sreyleak, 23, said the books would help her when she returns to her family’s farm in Kompong Chhnang province.
“I’d really like to read books related to agriculture and cooking because these are the sort of skills I can take back to my village. I don’t think I’ll be a garment worker for long—I want to return home to grow crops,” she said.
Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which cooperated on the library project, said that better exposure to literature and education did not necessarily mean that workers would leave the garment sector. Rather, he said, he hoped the self-education might lead to more promotions inside factories.
“When people are better educated, they have higher chances of moving into a higher position,” Mr. Monika said. “It’s also a process of the industry…to move up the value chain…toward producing a higher quality product. We need better educated workers.”