Garment Factory Workers Left Unemployed Look for a Way Forward

Chinh Raven worked for 10 years at W&D garment factory until it asked employees to work reduced hours. Unable to support herself on the low wages, she was forced to leave 4 months ago and since then she has been unemployed

She hopes this might soon change given that last month she took a housekeeping course at Yejj Hospitality Training Center. Every day she learnt cleaning techniques, such as mopping, then practiced these in the center’s model house.

Five of the 12 former garment factory workers on the housekeeping course had been unemployed for between 3 months and 10 years. They hope the course will lead to work in Phnom Penh, far away from their homes in Takeo, Kompong Cham, Pursat, Svay Rieng and Kandal provinces. The chances of finding work, however, remain slim.

Ms Raven is among those out of work due to the impact of the global financial crisis on the garment industry. The pay for part time work was not enough to cover living costs, Ms Raven said. “Salary was low and often given late, but I needed to pay for electricity and water as well as send money home,” she said.

Ms Raven is very happy to have the opportunity to learn housekeeping and finds it easier than working at a garment factory. “At the factory, work was so hard I got very tired…. I felt like I was in a prison,” she said. “I’m not embarrassed [to be a housekeeper] because I like this job and there is time to relax.” She learnt to use modern products, to clean the toilet for example, and new methods for tasks such as making the bed. Each lesson focused on a different room where an instructor demonstrated techniques then let the women try these out. Ms Raven also takes cookery, computer and English classes.

Ali Copple, Education Consultant at Yejj Training, says the course helps women out of desperate situations. “Laid-off workers, mostly women, are at risk and now still have the obligation to send money home,” she said. “They don’t want to go back to the village as they can’t earn anything there, which is the reason they left in the first place…. There are not a lot of job options except for work in restaurants, massage parlors or bars.”

Those unemployed are vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation especially if they move into the entertainment sector. A UN Inter-Agency Project report last July concluded that during the financial crisis more women entered the sex trade due to declining working conditions, such as in the garment sector. Out of 55 direct sex, massage and karaoke workers who had lost their jobs at garment factories, 33 percent were laid off before the financial crisis and 67 percent after.

Therefore the women on the Yejj course are sponsored by the UNIAP that formed a network of NGOs, including Chab Dai Coalition, to reduce the impact of the crisis on human trafficking. “The impact [of factory workers losing their jobs] is very large,” Lim Tith, UNIAP National Project Coordinator said, “It affects the whole family and hits everyone.”

Laid-off workers are still under pressure to continue supporting their families, said Chin Chanveasna, Executive Director of Ecpat-Cambodia, a network of anti-exploitation organizations. Therefore, “Any job offer-real or fake-they always go to the place,” he said “They are so desperate surviving day by day that they don’t think about the risk.”

Training is part of the solution but only a temporary measure unless it results in employment, Mr Chanveasna said. Domestic work opportunities are rare because Khmer families tend to employ relatives. It can also be exploitative because private homes are hard to monitor. “Once the door and gate are locked, you can’t do anything,” he added.

Ms Copple says “there are no guarantees,” that housekeeping will be safe. However, Yejj Training makes informal links with mostly foreign families and is launching a recruitment program whose liaison officer will vet employers.

An International Labor Organization-led survey released on March 25 showed 6 percent of workers retrenched from the garment industry since Jan 1, 2009, had found work in other sectors. Of these, only 8 percent undertook training to secure a job outside the garment industry. “Retraining can be a very valuable path to new employment,” said Tuomo Poutiainen, Chief Technical Adviser at ILO Better Factories Cambodia. “What is important is that…the training is targeting to fill employers actual needs.”

The most recent data from the Commerce Ministry indicate that garment exports rose more than 20 percent in January compared to the same month last year. However, industry experts say there are few signs this recovery will result in job creation.

The women who were on the Yejj course hope to be cooks, child carers and housekeepers; but mostly just to have a job. By Sithoeurn, a widow and mother of two, is open to all forms of work. “I need a job so if any place [of employment] needs me I will go there,” she said.

(Additional reporting Khuon Narim)






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