When Seng Sy Nan arrived for work at the Sam Han garment factory on Oct 10, she had no idea she was about to join the ranks of the country’s unemployed.
The 38-year-old mother of four was earning about $150 per month at her job, until that day when she and 8,000 others were given notice that the factory would be closed for the next three months.
“Sam Han is a good factory. I don’t understand why it has no work for us. Now I’m just waiting for the factory to re-open,” Seng Sy Nan said.
“Where should I go? What should I do?” she asked.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of the country’s 240,000 factory workers could be left without jobs when the US’ quota system expires on Dec 31, said Seng Phally, the executive director of the Cambodian Labor Organization.
The majority of those will be poorly educated women who left the provinces to earn money working at factories in the city.
Garment factories were one of the few places they could find work. Now with tens of thousands of women like Seng Sy Nan facing the possibility they will be left without jobs at the end of the year, concerns are mounting that many could turn to the sex trade.
“The tourism industry can’t absorb them all,” said Rosanna Barbero, co-ordinator of Women’s Agenda for Change at Oxfam Hong Kong.
And in Cambodian society, “women’s bodies are used for labor and sex,” she said.
On Jan 1, 1999, Cambodia and the US entered into an agreement that set a quota on textile and apparel imports to the US. The deal also implemented a clause that stated the garment quota would be increased if Cambodia could improve factory working conditions to comply with Cambodian labor law and international labor practices.
The agreement was a boon for Cambodian garment manufacturers. Cambodia currently exports 93 percent of its garment products to the US market, earning $1.6 billion annually and the distinction of being the country’s largest industry.
Government officials are confident that the garment industry will expand once the quota agreement expires this year because the country’s ascension to the World Trade Organization allows Cambodia more access to more markets in more countries.
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh maintains in his book, “Cambodia and the World Trade Organization,” that the quota system, as it stands, is keeping the industry from expanding further.
But Seng Phally and others fear Cambodia cannot compete with China and other garment-producing countries that are better positioned to take advantage of the open market.
Cambodia is an extension of the major garment factory bases in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan and orders will still go through those centers first, said Kang Chandararot, an economist at the Cambodia Development Research Institute. “Factories in Cambodia are subcontractors with the majority factory base in the other countries,” he said. “Buyers do not really trust us.”
Seng Phally said Cambodian companies have higher operating costs which put them at a serious disadvantage when competing with China and other countries.
“If other countries can produce good products with lower costs than we do, we will lose investors,” he said.
Cambodia’s problems also include a lack of raw materials, technical knowledge, trade promotion, infrastructure and transportation links, he added.
Pierre Legros, regional coordinator of the anti-trafficking organization Afesip, is one of those who is predicting an explosion in prostitution.
“It’s going to be a mess,” he said.
If factories close, Legros said, the women will have to find a way to survive with few marketable skills.
“They will be jobless without any resources and without any skills,” Legros said. “They will have to find money very, very quickly.”
Many of the women employed in garment factories already live in poor conditions that are rife with men and groups who are ready to put them to work.
“Everything is already organized to bring them into the sex industry,” said Legros, who plans to bring these concerns to the attention of the Australian, British, US and Thai Embassies during meetings on Nov 16 and Nov 17.
Mu Sochua, the former Funcinpec minister of women’s affairs who defected to the Sam Rainsy Party, said the government will need to devise a plan to address the issue.
“I’m not sure every one of these workers will end up [in prostitution], but we must have preventative measures,” she said.
With women facing unemployment and few opportunities, Mu Sochua said an increase in human trafficking would not come as a surprise.
“What is the other choice?” she asked.