Cambodian factories, labeled ‘sweatshops’ by right-on activists who sit outside big brand flag stores in malls and high streets across the developed world, have rather a bad rep amongst trade unionists, anti-capitalists, fans of countryside estate owner Billy Bragg and Guardian readers.
The vast majority of consumers don’t really give much of a damn, as long as the latest Nike sportswear is on the shelf at a premium price for the cool kids, and struggling parents can buy affordable, yet stylish, apparel for their screaming offspring off the peg in Walmart. Whilst the debate on globalization grinds on, from Dhaka to Dusseldorf and Phnom Penh to Penn State, the reality out on the factory floors is that for many Cambodians the ‘sweatshops’ are the best option when considering the alternatives of wading knee high in mud planting rice, getting groped by lecherous Asians in KTVs/beergardens or pretending to be interested in western sexpats whilst putting in the hours at riverside girly bars. Plus, all of the above are better than starvation, and leave enough extra each month to pay off microfinance loans taken out to buy gold and a 2nd hand Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
I have sympathy for the plight of the low skilled, low paid workers across the world, having once myself endured seemingly endless early, late and graveyard shifts in English factories during the last vestiges of the British manufacturing industry. Back in the 1990s, before the last big recession and the tidal wave of Polaks, it was easy enough to get zero hour contract work through cheap cocaine addicted arsehats who gave themselves the lofty title of senior recruitment agent specialists. You’d get a call a few hours before the whistle blew and be offered a 6-6 stint in the metalworks (noisy and dirty), the order picking warehouse (equivalent to walking a marathon) or stacking boxes of Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good cakes and Tesco Value Trifles at the food manufacturing plant (soul destroying, with free stupid hairnet included). Despite the torture of local radio piping the same Sugarbabes and Bryan Adams songs across the building, undispersed with adverts for double glazing and the same recruitment firm that brought the fellow drones here, the workers, although a miserable bunch, never fainted on mass. The overhead lighting played havoc with one’s eyes, and the pay rate of £3.75-£5.50 per hour (before tax) made one contemplate the uselessness of human existence, but the regular smoke breaks and subsidized canteen almost broke the monotony.
So while many of Cambodia’s thousands of factories need to do something to improve their worker’s lot with salary and conditions, the complex issues of economics, investments and all that jazz mean that they are vital for stability, growth and sales of Korean consumer electronics.
The most lethal challenge to Cambodian workers comes not from poor ventilation or industrial machinery, but the challenge of getting to and from the sweatshops 6 days a week. It’s kinda a case of hard work never killed anyone, but the commute might just be deadly.
At dawn every Monday-Saturday and armada of unroadworthy vehicles; minivans, motorcycle trailers and small trucks splutter, swerve and careen down National Road#4, competing for precious tarmac space with each other along with swarms of scooters, tuk-tuks, SUVs with VIPS on the PP-SHV route and huge trucks, along with hundreds of heads of cattle ambling to greener pastures. Dangerous to the point of insanity, their sole purpose is to cram as much human cargo onboard as possible and deliver them on time to start sewing together GAP sweatshop sweatshirts. This suicidal internal combustion engine driven pantomime is repeated, in the opposite direction every late afternoon. Essentially, it’s a foolish time to contemplate travel, but some fools foolishly decided to knock up a chick in Kampong Speu and forge a life farming quails, but still really need to navigate their way through the madness at precisely the same peak times. You make your bed, then you got to lie in it.
The reason the sight of thousands of peasants being shipped around like livestock plucks at my heartstrings like a Spanish gypsy playing la flamenca is several fold.
Firstly having to work anyway sucks balls. Risking death or mutilation just to get to a shit job sucks big fat dirty elephant’s scrotums. If being paid at a barely subsistence level to sew football shorts for faraway players in the Devon and Cornwall Ovaltine Sunday League Division 3 isn’t bad enough, then the reasonably high chance of having one’s brains decorating road 4 in a macabre tribute to Jackson Pollack on the way to do so must really dampen any work ethic. The small chance of a compensation payoff to cover funeral expenses in the light of a fatal traffic incident may come as a slight reassurance, but the risk of just being brutally maimed and thus becoming yet another burden on a family impoverished enough to forge ID papers, so that their 15 year old daughter can work ‘legally’, must outweigh such happy notions.
Secondly, it’s personal. Trying to weave a 110cc Suzuki through a solid mass of cut n’ shut insurance write-offs from the US and Korea is challenging, made worse with dickheads in Landcruisers with green state plates honking and flashing whilst ploughing through the melee on the wrong side of the road. The drivers are at best, dangerous and at worst unqualified to drive a shopping trolley. And dangerous. Although admittedly haggard for my years, it’s my honest opinion that I’m too young and handsome to die, just yet.
It’s also just not pleasant to see strangers bleed to death in front of a group of onlookers, busy filming the scene with gleeful schadenfreude. Been there, done that, and trust me, it really spoils the rest of the day.
Seeing chickens and pigs crushed together on the back of a truck makes even the most voracious of meat lovers feel a twinge of guilt, but when it’s 50+ actual people ram jammed together rattling along the highway at 70km/ph with the resigned look of livestock, to me at least, it seems a bit swastiky. Fortunately the human sardines are only on their way to stitch clothing, and won’t be forced to dig their own graves, be tied from behind and shot in the back of the head. That went out of fashion in the late 70’s, with a brief renaissance in ’97.
Besides all the doom and gloom, there is also a human angle to my hatred of the factory deathtraps. Well, more of a horny notquiteoldenoughtobeadirtyeoldmanbutgettingtherequick angle. Remember public transport? Did you ever fall in love with a stranger on a bus or train? Did you wile away the hours of a dull journey fantasizing about the boy/girl in the next seat and wishing you had the courage to strike up a conversation? A similar thing happens every time I go to Phnom Penh and get stuck behind a hundred trucks packed with factory workers.
There are always the dudes, normally with stupid hats and shit eating grins who, upon seeing a white man tailing them will shout ‘Hello’ from their position, which is always at the back. I smile, but generally try to ignore them, as I do the majority of Khmer young males.
The girls I have more empathy for, and not just the pretty ones. It’s pretty tough for the srey Khmer, and there is a fairly good chance that back in the village she has at least a couple of brothers who prefer to sit around drinking palm wine and/or smoking amphetamines whilst she risks her life and limbs each morning to work in potentially unsavoury conditions to come home to a delicious meal of rice and fried fish and give away her pay cheque.
The pretty girls, and goddamn there are a few around the provinces, evoke adolescent memories of the 10.55 Bristol Temple Meads to Birmingham New Street (via Droitwich Spa), lustfully eying up the blonde at the window seat. It’s not easy to overtake (or undertake) a lumbering diesel truck overloaded with humanoid sardines, especially when the vehicle is swerving all across the road to stop, pick up, drop off or manically avoiding other drivers doing the same maneuvers. The best tactic to keep on truckin’ is to keep a healthy distance behind, finger on the horn, hand hovering over the brakes and wait for the best opportunity to pass. A white guy on a bike is probably the most interesting thing these folks have seen all day, and often eye contact will be made with a sultry beauty who gives off the aura of a dusky pyjama clad sex maiden mixed with the pitiful look of a stray lurcher staring through the cage in Battersea Dogs Home. A type of ‘Hey baby….rescue me.’
Finally there is a certain sense of solidarity felt between myself and my poorly paid comrades, for back in those halcyon days of youth and temporary factory toil, I myself had to make use of recruitment agency transport to get to whichever out of town industrial estate we were being sent to that day. Our driver was Crazy, literally.
Crazy Buffalo was a chain smoking, tattooed Frank Butcher look alike, with a voice like throat cancer and the driving skills of Mr Magoo. He had changed his name by deed poll as he believed he was the reincarnation of an Native American chieftain, and not the product of a postwar council estate in Redditch. Crazy (for short) would be on 24 hour call, delivering the temps around from the West Midlands to the West Country, fag clamped between fingers, causing near misses up and down the M5. The reason for so many hours behind the wheel, he would wheeze, was to save enough for his annual 2 weeks holiday on some reservation in South Dakota, to ‘Spend time with me tribe’. What the indigenous redskins made of this nutjob arriving at their teepee every year was anyone’s guess.
Whilst comparing low skilled labour in Britain to Cambodia may bit a off balance, the real issue remains; hundreds die and thousands are injured on the roads every year. All it takes is 1 blowout, and dozens of standing room only passengers are sent hurtling down an embankment and into a rice field to meet a nasty fate. Crazy Buffalo could have done that to a minibus full of students and back-to-work dole dossers, but luckily that never happened. This had less to do with Crazy’s driving (although, unlike a vast number of Khmers behind the wheel, he did hold a valid driver’s license from the DVLA) and more to do with better quality roads, and a vehicle with an MOT that hadn’t already been damaged beyond repair and shipped out from a far off country to be welded back together by yokels wearing cheap Raybans for eye protection. And for legal reasons all passengers in the UK have to sit down on proper seats and not ride on a wooden platform hanging out the back or on the roof, although the agency would have probably made us, if they could get away with it.
There are schemes afoot to try to ‘educate’ people carrying vehicle drivers on how to safely use the indicators, mirrors and distinguish the brake and accelerator pedals. Maybe in the future they will have to sit an actual test and get proper safety inspections. Just maybe.
So spare a thought next time you buy some underpants or a nice top, less about the sweatshop fainting and more about the journey to the gates. Whilst most of us are not enthralled with having to earn a crust, some people are literally dying to get there.