After garment workers sang tearful songs and strutted down a catwalk in a fashion show at Oxfam’s riverfront headquarters on Sunday, British actress Minnie Driver urged multinationals to change their buying practices so poor workers could have better lives.
Saying she came to Cambodia not as a global economist or an expert on Cambodia but as a Western consumer, Driver made “an impassioned plea to the heads of large corporations to really consider their buying practices, how every time they squeeze to get lower production costs, faster production, it’s nobody but the working women who suffer and their families back home.”
Oxfam used the event to unveil a global report titled “Trading Away Our Rights: Women Working in Global Supply Chains,” which called on companies to make labor standards a “key sourcing criterion.”
Though just a few months ago Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh said Driver could “be harmful” to Cambodia, on Sunday he welcomed her presence and hailed the Oxfam report as one that could pressure companies to keep orders in the increasingly labor-friendly country.
Cham Prasidh, who referred to Driver as “a beauty with a mission,” said she should make a new movie called “Good Will Job Creator” to follow “Good Will Hunting,” a film she co-stared in.
“The very presence of Minnie Driver in Cambodia is serving the purpose of making the heads of multinational corporations become responsible,” he said. “With celebrities like her with a really noble mission we can make [companies] understand it is time for them to pay for the workers who are producing their products and not just pay the price they want to pay.”
The event started with a group of garment workers singing songs and sharing stories about the hardships they face with the crowded room of about 700 mostly female garment workers.
In a song called “Voice of Garment Workers,” the women sang: “The voice of garment workers must be used to shout to tell all Cambodian women that to be a servant is very difficult. They curse, they blame us and say we are bad girls, but we have no freedom and no rights.”
A fashion show followed with female workers showing off clothes they had sewn in the factories.
Strobe lights and loud techno music excited the crowd as pictures of world leaders, including US President George W Bush, appeared on a slide show behind the catwalk.
At one point, the music was turned down and Driver read testimonials of poor workers. Later, the worker-models bounced down the catwalk with cutout-silhouettes of a woman’s face emblazoned with phrases like “Exploited,” “Narrowing Opportunities” and “Not Valued.”
The show ended with Driver and Cham Prasidh clasping hands as they walked to the end of the catwalk for a photo opportunity with the garment workers.
Oxfam credited the International Labor Organization with ridding the country of sweatshops and said the ILO inspection system could help establish the country as one that guarantees shoppers their clothes are made by people paid decently and whose rights are respected.
Cambodia signed a bilateral trade agreement with the US in 1999 that gives the country a larger quota if factories comply with Cambodian labor law. This year, the US granted Cambodia 14 percent out of a possible 18 percent bonus quota.
At the urging of the US and Cambodian governments, the ILO began inspecting factories in cooperation with the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia in 2001.
The ILO says “significant improvements” have been made in the garment sector since it began inspections, though problems with respect to payment of wages and the length and frequency of overtime remain. The government, the US and GMAC have agreed to extend the ILO’s monitoring for two years in the hopes of making the inspection system sustainable.
“The monitoring process is helping to produce a safer working environment and more equitable working conditions,” the ILO said in a statement Sunday. “This in turn has helped to improve the international credibility of the Cambodian factories. The project’s work has also helped secure the return of some international buyers to Cambodia and orders from others have been increased.”
The industry now employs about 230,000 mostly female workers in nearly 200 factories. The industry’s exports, which totaled $26.2 million in 1995, topped
$1.5 billion last year, comprising nearly all the country’s exports.
With worldwide garment quotas for World Trade Organization members set to expire at the end of the year, the garment industry in Cambodia and other developing countries expect to face stiff competition from major garment producers like China, Pakistan and India.
The government is hoping that its labor-friendly nation branding and its expected entry into the WTO will keep orders and factories in the country.
The government is also working with the unions to cut mandatory double pay for workers on a night shift down to time and a half.
Cham Prasidh said Sunday an extra 15,000 jobs could be created by the measure, which Oxfam opposes. The labor law needs to be amended before the pay can be cut, however, and unions are pushing for a task force to monitor whether workers are being paid correctly.
“A deal is in the works and is fairly close to finalization,” said Lejo Sibbel, a senior official with the ILO, which is helping with negotiations on the new measure.