The industry that has become the lifeblood of Cambodian trade was given a human face on Tuesday evening as Meta House screened the first four parts of the six-part documentary on Phnom Penh’s garment workers it co-produced with the International Labor Organization.
The short films–“A Day at the Factory,” “A Day Around the Factory,” “A Day Off from the Factory” and “A Weekend With the Manager”–explore the ecosystem of motorcycle taxi drivers, boarding house owners, managers and workers humming around a single garment factory.
“The goal is to bring them together into a single long documentary about life around the factories that can be screened abroad,” said Meta House owner Nico Mesterharm, adding that the final two films will bookend the series with narratives surrounding the creation of the Cambodian garment industry and the shipping of garments.
According to Mr Mesterharm, few people are allowed to see inside the factories and even Cambodians tend to have pre-conceived notions about inhumane working conditions that turn out to be far from universally true. Still, Mr Mesterharm admitted that nine factories declined to allow in a film crew.
“Every factory has different issues but I think the factories in the films are probably quite average,” said Tuomo Poutianen, chief technical advisor for the ILO’s Better Factories program.
Mr Poutianen said he hoped the films would show the intricacy of life in the factories from the perspective of Khmer people including both the workers and the students studying at Meta House’s film school, who collaborated with western documentarians on the project.
In the first film, the audience is introduced to Hang Bunthorn, a 42-year-old anti-Norma Rae, who says, “I think it’s good enough to be a worker and to make some money.”
Under electric lights, Ms Bunthorn and hundreds of other workers stitch together mounds of pink fabric as there machines provide a beat for their choral anthem:
“We are looked down on by society. There is no sympathy for us. We work from early in the morning until late at night. We we work hard to earn a few dollars.”
Sao Sopheak, a student who worked on the films, said that she had no idea what to expect when she went to the garment factory and began talking to garment workers.
“They don’t know the city at all,” said Ms Sopheak. “They work and then they go back to where they stay then they work and they give money to their familes. They live in small places.”