Clothes Worth Dying For?

When is the last time you thought about who made your clothes? No, I don’t mean the brand name printed on the tag, but the individual who, through blood, sweat, and tears, created the garment on your back. Do you wonder if she fainted of exhaustion halfway through that stitch? Or if she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor as she sewed that seam? What about just the basics — does she receive a livable salary?

In a subcontracted factory in Cambodia, workers labor at the bottom of a supply chain for international brands. Samer Muscati / Human Rights Watch

More than 700,000 people work in the garment industry in Cambodia. Women dominate the industry, making up 90 to 92 percent of laborers, and are far more prone to human rights abuses and sexual assault. Here are just a few excerpts from a 2015 Human Rights Watch report conducted with more than 340 workers:

Ly Sim passed productivity tests and was promoted to team leader in the sewing division of her factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, in 2012. A few months later, Sim, in her late 20s, became visibly pregnant. Factory management demoted her and cut her pay. When she and other workers protested with the help of the factory union, they were summarily fired.

Devoum Chivon helped form a union in the factory where he worked and was elected president in late 2013. Within days of being notified about the new union leaders, the factory managers pressured Chivon to quit the union and offered him a bribe, which he refused. The management then criticized the newly elected union leaders’ job performance and fired them.

Leouk Thary, in her 20s, worked in a garment factory on four-month short-term contracts that her managers repeatedly renewed. One day in November 2013 she had a bad nosebleed and sought exemption from overtime work. Even though her managers told her to continue working, she went to see a doctor. She returned the next day with a medical certificate requesting sick leave for nose surgery. She was fired immediately.

In Cambodia the garment and shoe industry supplies 82 percent of the country’s global exports, or $5.31 billion in income. The minimum wage for garment workers was raised from $128 to $140 per month in 2016 after years of protests, which at times turned deadly as police opened fire on crowds of unarmed civilians. While the salary increase might be seen as a small victory, the living wage in Cambodia for a family is $289 and roughly 72 percent of workers have children.

Police fired live ammunition at a protest on Nov. 12, 2013 injuring 20 and killing one in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. AP Photo

The conditions in which employees are forced to work upwards of 60 hours a week with no overtime pay are appalling. In 2011, a pandemic of mass faintings in garment factories swept across Cambodia, most notably caused by the inhalation of dangerous chemicals, exhaustion, heat, and malnutrition. Workers reported that daily production targets inhibited them from using the bathroom, taking a break, or eating food. Not meeting these targets could induce intimidation from supervisors, a pay cut, or a refusal to renew a worker’s short-term contract.

Women, in particular, are victims of gender-related discrimination and sexual harassment within the workplace. Supervisors not only often refuse to hire women that are noticeably pregnant, but also fail to provide adequate accommodations (such as paid leave for doctor’s visits) or simply, more time to use the restroom during the workday. Because most workers are hired on short-term contracts lasting approximately 2 months, pregnant women don’t receive benefits or paid maternity leave, directly contradicting Cambodia’s Labor Law that guarantees all pregnant workers receive paid time off irrespective of the duration of their contract and paid maternity leave for those employed at least one year. The law also states that a woman cannot be fired for being pregnant. In addition to these violations, one in five women have reported being sexually harassed during work. Cambodia’s Labor Law prohibits sexual harassment, but fails to define what constitutes harassment or outline a procedure for reporting complaints.

Garment industry unions seem to be the only hope for voicing complaints to an outside world that has largely continued to fund these abuses. But union workers do not escape the systematic corruption. Factory owners dissuade union participation through practices of bribing or harassing newly elected union officers. Long-term workers are often kept on short-term contracts so that those participating in union activities can be easily dismissed without having to provide an explanation. Even when unions successfully form, the Cambodian government has created bureaucratic barriers to hinder progress. The Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training has been accused of subjectively delaying union applications, giving factory owners sufficient time to retaliate against workers. The government also now requires union leaders to provide a certificate from the Ministry of Justice stating they have not been convicted of a previous criminal offense. In addition, union leaders have accused the Labor Ministry of arbitrarily denying union applications citing inconsequential errors, directly violating the United Nations Human Rights Council’s resolution reaffirming freedom of peaceful assembly to all.

Cambodian workers call for higher wages at a garment factory industrial park in Phnom Penh, Sept. 17, 2014. Photo: Chor Sokunthea

There is no denying the proliferate level of corruption within Cambodia’s government and its failure to be held accountable for the human rights abuses that are occurring on a daily basis in its garment factories. In 2014, the Labor Ministry created inspectorate teams charged with investigating claims and monitoring factory conditions. But the outcome was not an improvement in industry conditions, as one might expect. Instead, the “envelope system” became a widespread practice in which factory managers would exchange an envelope of money for a positive report.

Billion-dollar companies such as Walmart, Zara, and H&M produce clothes in these garment factories, but have done little to rectify the situation or address the human rights violations that occur on a daily basis. The answer is not to cancel contracts and put thousands of people out of work, but rather to ensure that a number of accountability and transparency practices are enforced. For starters, brands must agree to:

  • Publicly disclose all authorized production units and when the last inspection occurred
  • Create a whistleblower system for workers and union representatives to report abuses and provide the appropriate legal protection that would allow them to safely do so
  • Ensure that all subcontracted factories are reported and monitored
  • Adhere to and enforce a strict code of conduct that promotes equality and a healthy work environment

Brands possess the most power to enact change in garment factories and should make it a priority to monitor working conditions and demand contractual terms that ensure a livable wage for employees. Unfortunately, the big brands of America, Europe, and Canada are well aware of the conditions in garment factories and have instead chosen to turn a blind eye in favor of larger profit margins and clandestine behaviors. So it is now up to us, the consumers, to force their hand.​​

“Sweatshop — Deadly Fashion” documents three young fashion bloggers as they explore the lives of garment workers in Cambodia. You can watch the full documentary here. Photo: Sweatshop — Deadly Fashion

The fact is, the majority of consumers don’t think about this issue. Maybe because it conjures unpleasant thoughts or we just don’t know any better, but the truth is, it shouldn’t be our responsibility to demand that our favorite brands ensure basic human rights protections for those it employs. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It should not be our responsibility, but brands have mistakenly given us the power they never assumed we could wield, and NOW it is time for us to use it. To be responsible consumers we must refuse to buy clothing made with the literal blood, sweat, and tears of others. Force the hand of industry execs by boycotting these brands and informing others of the tyranny that exists overseas so that one day we can be proud of the clothes on our backs, knowing they are providing stable careers for women in developing countries and bringing happiness to their families.