Workers Turn Models on Political Catwalk

About 150 garment workers turned out to the Phnom Penh of­fices of the United Sisterhood Alliance NGO on Sunday to watch a politically charged fashion show entitled “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality.”

Aimed to highlight “the income gap between Cambodian garment workers and the selected CEOs of brand companies,” according to show organizers, the two-hour program featured a medley of cat-walking, political theater and speeches calling for a $160 month­ly basic wage. 

Workers model clothes at the 'Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality' fashion show in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Siv Channa)
Workers model clothes at the ‘Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality’ fashion show in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Siv Channa)

After a brief dance described as “crackdown hip-hop,” which featured four young men “krump­ing” with their arms over house music punctuated by gun-shot sound effects, a group of about a dozen female garment workers, on their day off work, emerged onto the catwalk.

The workers-turned-models, who served as the stars of the rest of the show, presented a range of colorful clothing that had no unifying theme other than hav­ing been produced in a Cam­bo­dian garment factory.

Items spanned from unbranded plain black dresses to jacket tops and T-shirts displaying the “Pu­ma” and “Adidas” logos.

Event organizers said the show was designed to stress to both the government and the brands being displayed—H&M, Adidas, Puma, Gap, Old Navy and Nike—the need for a higher basic wage.

“If we don’t demand, there will be no change,” said Phon Sreivin, one of the workers who took part in the program.

“Before the government decided to give us only $95, but after the workers’ demand movement, the government agreed to pay us more—and we will continue to make demands until we can live in dignity,” she said.

The show soon transitioned into a more openly political segment, with the garment-worker models re-emerging onto the catwalk to present a list of problems faced by workers on the current $100 basic monthly wage.

Wearing white shirts and red bandanas, the women presented grievances including “forced overtime,” “fixed duration contracts” and “health risks.”

Songs such as Swedish duo Icona Pop’s 2012 hit “I Love It”—whose distinctive electro-house chorus repeatedly rings out “I don’t care, I love it”—were blasted over the speakers during the circuit.

The models were then joined by a flurry of others, dressed as protesters and activists wearing the “$160” headbands of the na­tionwide garment worker strike that began late last year.

The group marched in frenetic circuits of the catwalk until the inevitable theater of repression ar­rived in the form of men dressed up as the notorious, helmeted district security guards.

With some of the guards armed with toy rifles, the forces and the protesters tussled in a choreographed back-and-forth. A protester was then shot dead in a dramatization of the strike repressions of January.

After the show, garment workers who attended said that the demands for a $160 basic monthly wage were still alive in their minds.

“The arrest, ban, threats and killing of our activists cannot prevent a workers’ movement,” said Hil Chandy, 23. “We still demand all buyers take responsibility to find a solution for $160 for all workers.”,

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