Cambodia's Low Cost Garment Industry: Sustainable for Whom?

Most Cambodians have never even heard of Gap or Wal-Mart. For Cambodians they're just labels that are sewn onto some of the millions of garments produced here. But what labels they are. Cambodian garment exports were worth US$5.5 billion last year, around one third of the country's GDP. Almost US$2 billion of this ended up in major US department stores. Despite its reputation as a source of clean labor, the Cambodian garment industry is typified by poverty wages, forced labor and discrimination and violence against pregnant women and trade union leaders.

On any given day, we may see workers who have fallen unconscious at work due to lack of food and or sleep; individuals seeking to avoid involuntary 14-hour work days in 40-plus degree heat; women who have been terminated by their employer because they are expecting a child; or workers who are arrested, beaten or shot for trying to start a trade union to change the status quo.

US retailers know this all too well. In fact, one could say that it's one of the reasons that they are here.

The minimum wage in Cambodia is US$100 per month making Cambodian labor some of the cheapest in the world. It's barely a poverty wage, especially when you consider that nearly all Cambodian garment workers have children and elderly parents to support.

Perhaps even more shockingly, the $100 wage is only very recent improvement - one paid for in blood. In the last year alone, at least five people have been shot dead at garment factory protests calling for increased wages. A 16-year-old boy who was last seen lying on the ground with blood pouring from what appeared to be a gunshot wound to his chest is still missing. He is likely the sixth fatality.

Three of those killed were sewing garments for Wal-Mart.

Others like Mr. Hoeun Chan survived. But he is now paralyzed from the waist down after being shot during a protest at a Gap supplier. Chan says that he now "lives a life that is more difficult than dying." Countless more have been brutalized with fists, feet, batons, electric shields and slingshots. This includes many pregnant women. Some have miscarried their unborn children.

It was only through fierce determination and with great sacrifice that workers were able to increase their wages to US$100 per month - a poverty wage. The Cambodian government's own studies conclude that workers' basic needs are US$157 and US$177 per month whilst living wage estimates are as high as US$395 per month. Yet despite their legal responsibility to ensure these needs are met for full-time workers, they choose corruption, violence and limits on fundamental freedoms - a system which suppliers of US retailers actively engage in.

So what is next for Cambodian garment workers? On the current trajectory one can only expect more violence and exploitation. The low-cost garment model is a product of inequality - both in the US and in Cambodia. The question is how long will we all tolerate the global race to the bottom? Cambodians like 16-year-old Khem Saphath and Hoeun Chan don't have this luxury.