Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Garment Workers Open University: Can Education Better Factory Conditions?

Monday 28 March 2011
By Anne Elizabeth Moore
t r u t h o u t
News Analysis

(Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)
Bright and extremely early one Sunday morning in January, slightly more than 400 young women and a handful of young men trundled out of bed to attend class on the east side of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (While the notion of a Christian day of rest doesn't exist in the Buddhist country, it was their day off - for some, the only one they have for weeks.) Students sat in classes, repeated lessons back to instructors, took breaks to laugh and play in the courtyard and dreamed about their futures. It looked and felt like any college campus in the world - at least, any low-income college campus. Except that these women were learning about labor law. Because - oh yeah, did I forget to mention this? - they're garment factory workers.

Over a series of consecutive Sundays, 500 textile laborers per day were invited to an experimental educational initiative of the International Labour Organization's Better Factories Cambodia, held at the National Technical Training Institute on Russian Boulevard, next door to the June Textiles Company. A full day of classes, lunch, entertainment, health services, fiscal advice, job training information and free gifts were offered to more than 2,000 workers at factories around the city, all in an effort to make laborers aware of their rights under the complex Cambodian legal system.


Implementation, however, was not without drawbacks. Attendance was only 85 percent of invited participants, a problem due, in part, to the written invitation. "Many of the workers didn't understand it," one organizer explains.

It's not that it was particularly confusing, or the concept of a law school for factory workers that difficult to grasp. It's just that the information was written down. Many of the workers can't read.
* * *
(Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)
If the June Textiles Company sounds familiar, it's because the BBC documented underage workers at the Singapore-owned facility a decade ago. The story was big, so buyers for US-based companies Nike and Gap got out fast, canceling contracts instead of pressuring the factory to adhere to labor laws.

Cambodia panicked. Since it had entered the garment trade in 1996, the country had relied upon sales to rich nations like the US and Germany to support its fastest-growing industry. Twenty to thirty factories per year had opened in a country that had no natural resources left after decades of civil war and years of secret American bombings. (Now there are 380 exporting garment factories in the country.) The 1974 Multi-Fibre Agreement had ensured that wealthy countries would import from poorer ones under a quota system, but that agreement was set to end in 2004 and a future for the industry relied on maintaining current contracts.

Yet, incidents like the one at June Textiles proved that retaining current trade agreements meant assuring that international buyers couldn't be attached to human rights abuses like child labor. So in 2001, the Garment Manufacturing Association of Cambodia (GMAC), the trade organization and lobbying group for the industry, asked the International Labour Organization (ILO) to establish a monitoring program. Following a few fits and starts, the ILO's unique and weird project Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) emerged in 2006.

Now, ever since the ILO was adopted as a United Nations agency in 1946, it's been establishing and monitoring international labor standards throughout the world. So, if it seems hinky that an international body like the UN would be invited in to monitor a fast-growing industry in a country where corruption wasn't even tracked until 2006 (when Transparency International ranked it 151st out of 163 countries), many are concerned it might be.

Most concerns stem from the heavy hand industry plays in guiding the project. Funded by the US Department of Labor, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Agence Francaise de Developpement, the GMAC, the Royal Government of Cambodia and international buyers, BFC is lead by a tripartite committee made up of Cambodian ministries, the GMAC and trade unions (and we'll look more at them in a moment). After all, the June Textiles incident had shown that international buyers are more concerned with maintaining brand image and low cost than resolving human rights issues. And the factories, on their own, were not self-monitoring effectively.

(Photo: Anne Elizabeth Moore)
Yet, few critics quibble with the project's methods. "By means of monitoring and providing training and advisory services," BFC training specialist Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme explains, the project "seeks to improve working conditions in the local garment industry through engaging with various stakeholders." BFC has been widely credited with improving compliance with international labor standards, as well as contributing to the growth of the industry even after the expiration of the Multi-Fibre Agreement.

In fact, innovative programming like the Garment Worker Open University has allowed BFC to emerge as a model project in the last five years and is now set to spawn spin-offs throughout the developing world.
* * *
Meanwhile, just down the road from June Textiles, morning classes at the campus have ended. A fifteen-minute free lunch in the classroom began a few minutes before my arrival. BFC wants to make sure that workers have had at least one good meal on their watch, but the food service industry has a ways to go before catching up with wealthy textiles, so no donations were received. Still, one organizer tells me, "We want to make sure they have all eaten." BFC purchased the food - lunch, afternoon snacks - themselves. Because when garment workers run short on cash, they often skimp on food. (Read my previous report here.)

As lunch breaks up, 418 young adults make their way toward the courtyard. The first table en route offers immediate health services, distributed by the Red Cross.

Health services, although required to be offered in factories, are notoriously bad. Workers often simply refuse to seek treatment on the basis of quality of care alone, although the added possibilities of employer reprimands, penalties, or flat-out firings cannot boost confidence in visiting health services on offer. (Read more here.)

As I wander by, several women receive bandages for minor wounds, partially healed already, so likely accrued over the course of the week. Others take white pills I recognize: anti-diarrheals. A young woman in line complains to me of a headache; another describes in Khmer "a problem with her stomach," the vague idiom for gastrointestinal rumblings that could indicate vomiting.

Those who have no immediate medical issues make their way, chatting and laughing, toward a row of tables along a wall at the far edge of the courtyard. Here non-governmental organizations (NGOs) distribute giveaways and answer questions about their services. Public health initiatives, credit unions and a job-training organization hand out posters, calendars and stickers.

All Open University students are wearing one-day uniforms: navy blue, polo-style shirts with white collars, emblazoned with every logo and slogan that will fit: BFC on one side and the ILO on the other, left breast decorated with a tasteful text describing the day's activities. The back is splashed with a slogan I forget to have translated. The same design, although on a turquoise shirt, is worn by volunteers for the event - only a handful of them are women. Most are managers in the factories.

The Cambodian love of formalism is not satisfied with a sea of navy, however, and each student also wears an orange lanyard around the neck, on which hangs an ID card. It provides something else to straighten as the young women stand, stomach tucked, in groups, their hair properly adjusted and clothing smoothed. Some walk festively, arm-in-arm, showing off totally unrisqué posters for OK condoms they received from Marie Stopes International or calendars from Credit Mutuel Kampuchea. Workers are urged to mark paydays and set savings goals.

Many consider it carefully: Even top earners devoted to consistent overtime can take home just a few dollars over the living wage of $93 per month. Most send home about half of what they earn to farming families, a system that keeps about a fifth of the country fed and is the reason daughters are sent off to the big city in the first place. ("Do you like your job?" I ask one and she looks at me, baffled. "Oh no," the translator explains. "I am only happy when I am at home.") A savings account is an affront not only to the traditional Cambodian mistrust of banks, which in richer days meant wives would wear the entire family's wealth in jewels, but to the primacy of the family itself.

The idea of a safety net appeals. Last June, the base wage was set to raise from $55 per month to $61 in the fall, and a follow-up series of mass strikes in September (reported on here - which ultimately failed - assured that there wouldn't be any more discussion of paying a living wage to garment workers for some time.

The 2010 strikes from 13 to 16 September had been dramatic: between 100,000 and 200,000 workers (of the nearly 300,000 employed in the industry overall) had walked off jobs in protest of the paltry raise. The number of striking workers was never verified, but the GMAC was horrified enough to agree to a meeting to renegotiate wages.

That meeting never happened. Instead, 26 labor leaders were immediately "banned" from jobs - a tricky way around the prohibition against firing workers for participating in union activity. These workers weren't fired: they were just not allowed to enter the buildings where they worked. A September 18 rally held in protest attracted 3,000 factory employees. Police injured five while attempting to break it up.

Over the winter, organizers regrouped. The demand for wage increases had turned into a protest over firings. These kicked off more firings, which led to more protests. The number of laborers effectively out of work over what was originally a reasonable argument for a wage increase quickly grew - some estimate well into the thousands.

But the story became even more bizarre. When a British labor activist wrote to the Cambodian embassy in the UK expressing concern over the firings, he received a quick response. "It's none of your business!" the Telegraph reported the reply read. "Please report to your clown boss to stop this childish game and stop this circus at once," it continued. The note was signed "Webmaster." The activist wrote back, requesting a more comprehensible response and received the following instead: "Please go to the moon and stay there until you get an answer. Cambodia is not part of the British Empire."

All this, and still, "Nothing happened," one organizer told me anonymously. Even by January 2011, 300 illegally fired workers remained out of work at 20 factories around the country. "I don't know how. We had people, but we did not have good leadership. The unions, they do not listen."

And this is one possible effect the Open University initiative may have. To get the labor unions to listen.
* * *
There are 650 registered unions in Cambodia, a testament to the ease with which the law allows people to organize. Unfortunately, yellow unions - company-backed organizations that seed support for management decision - are fairly common, as are competitive unions within one factory. There are an average of six. Occasionally, two different groups that are members of the same federation will have competing branches of the same union. Leadership, universally male, acts without regard for the concerns of the workers - who are usually female. It's possible, I suppose, to consider this freedom of assembly and of expression, but it's definitely a wicked, hot mess.

"None of [the unions] are poster childs of anything," said one anonymous source.

Even so, labor leaders and workers alike are concerned about a new draft law set to regulate trade unions in the country, following the success of similar legislation that restricted the activities of NGOs and provoked concerns about freedom of expression from rights groups and donors. The law would give the government greater freedom in blocking protests, jailing leaders and disbanding unions. And it would make new unions much more difficult to form.

None of this is probably good for the labor movement in Cambodia, but it's difficult to argue that some sort of industry-wide reform isn't necessary.

There are, after all, only four vulnerable spots on the unwieldy body that is the international garment trade: national ministries of labor, individual factories, international buyers and unions. In Cambodia, the government has already played its hand, through arrests; public statements; and this new, restrictive legislation, and BFC monitors the factories directly.

International buyers weighed in with their stakes in a September 27 letter to the GMAC that expressed "great concern" over the protests. The letter was signed by Adidas, Gap, H&M, Levi's and Disney and further recommends that "all parties and stakeholders":
"Respect the process and engage in good faith dialogue to find a solution; Show commitment to constructive action for a long term solution and refrain from any inflammatory action or counterproductive rhetoric; Find a solution that is inclusive of all parties' concerns and provides longer term stability for the industry."
The letter is worded carefully: while it underscores the need for abiding by the law and sounds encouraging, it does not explicitly state a commitment to paying higher fees for goods if necessary, nor does it make a long-term commitment to maintaining a presence in Cambodia. Unfortunately, the June Textiles example - and others like it - bring these contrasts into sharp focus. Shape up, the letter could be read, or we ship out.

So that leaves unions as the most likely to forward a progressive agenda in the Cambodian garment industry. Or rather, considering the particularities of the confused Cambodian labor movement, it leaves union members.
* * *
Back on campus, an excessively didactic play has begun, a variety of storytelling favored by Cambodians, to be followed - yes, there it is now - by a quiz indicating how well audience members received the intended messages about public health issues. One wins a bike. She is thrilled. Another wins a sewing machine. Her smile is sublime.

The four sewing machines given away over the course of the program represent a victory for BFC. They were donated by the GMAC, which originally balked at the idea of a Garment Worker Open University. By the end, however, BFC's Vaillancourt-Laflamme explains, "The employers' organization sent some representatives to the event and we were pleased that they appreciated the quality of the overall event in terms of level of labor-law teaching presented to the workers and logistics."

I am not allowed to enter the classrooms where the lessons take place, so I ask Vaillancourt-Laflamme more about who was teaching them and what they were learning.

The instructors are all ILO employees, she tells me, "most of them being from Better Factories Cambodia. Senior trainers and labor specialists from BFC organized a thorough training of trainers in the weeks before the event, to ensure quality and consistency of the teachings and methodologies. BFC developed the material, which focused on the main - not all - aspects of the Cambodian Labor Law."

Sessions are devoted to labor contracts, working conditions, occupational health and safety, labor dispute resolution and rights and responsibilities of laborers.

By the end of the four-week program, each of the 1,700 workers that participated took home five copies of the Cambodian Labor Law guide to share with a total of 8,500 friends. In total, Vaillancourt-Laflamme estimates, they reached around a quarter of the exporting garment factories that operate in the country.

It was an exhausting effort. Still, Vaillancourt-Laflamme says, "we believe it was well worth it. It provided some opportunity for workers to learn about one of the most fundamental institutions one country has, the law."

"Many of the workers, factories and other partners have asked BFC to repeat the initiative," she tells me later via email. She also sends a few of the glowing evaluations workers filled out about the event. "BFC will have to evaluate how it can do so in the future and how we can improve the delivery."
* * *
It's one thing to ask the teacher what was taught, but it's another entirely to ask a student what she learned. I finagle an interpreter and convince two girls to sit at a picnic table with me and tell me about their day.

"What did you learn?" I ask and prepare to hear stats about HIV transmission.

"Before this day, we don't understand about labor law in Cambodia," a loquacious girl with a skin pigmentation problem and untended teeth enthuses. "We just work hard, every day and try to work well, but not try to understand. Both of us." She gestures to her friend, who is shy and merely nods.

"The teacher explained to us about permanent work and temporary work salaries. When we start, after three months, how much salary we get. And we study about the condition of work. For both the factory worker and the owner. If the employer give us the salary properly or not. If we work hard every day, overtime. If we agree or not."

She is a sewer and has been at her factory for around six months. I ask if she learned today about any problems that exist in her factory and she says no. A little later in the conversation I ask her again and she says no again. When I ask her a third time, however, she smiles.

"I have three months of temporary work. After three months, they have to increase salary. But the factory not increase yet." She looks, however, excited. "I want all worker to do something with the same purpose, with the same goal, to go together if there is a request to do something.... So we should go together and talk together to solve this problem."

At the six-month mark, she should be earning $61 per month. "You are only being paid as a temporary worker?" I ask. Temporary workers make $48 per month, which should go up to $55 at the three-month mark. I know this, but she talks me through it anyway. All the same, small bonuses and overtime often add up, sometimes almost doubling the monthly take-home pay.

"For attendance, five dollars more," the interpreter translates her response.

"How will this change what you do in the future?" I ask.

"Now I understand about labor law in Cambodia much more than before. When I arrive in factory, I will speak the information to others about labor law. My friends and coworkers. To make sure that we understand together." I hear, "A little knowledge goes a long way."

"Before," she goes on, "I feel wonder and not sure about myself. If I want to talk something, I afraid of mistake or something of the law but now, more like, encouraged. And brave in asking." She's been empowered. This is evident in her speech pattern, her willingness to meet my gaze and her ability to be articulate, even though she just discovered her employer's been screwing her, out of only a few bucks, sure, but around 20 percent of her salary.

The quiet, young woman, a lowly cutter right now, finally speaks. "I want to save money and find a professional job as a sewer. Now I just earn money in the factory, but I want to save money and make my own business." She, too, is thrilled with her prospects.

The young women trundle off to catch their afternoon session, although not before I ask them to thank all their friends for my shirt, which I bought at H&M and claims (via tag) to be made in Cambodia. It's possible that only the tag was sewn on here, of course, but I like to be thorough. All my clothes come from the kind of high-quality, low-cost manufacturers that have allowed Cambodia to emerge in recent years from total economic devastation to its comparatively hopeful state of deep disparity.

But it's never enough.

An event organizer had been watching our conversation and pulls me aside as my interviewees giggle on their way.

"Fifty-two dollars per month," she says, introducing herself as Eva Ferron. She is Indonesian, but lives in Phnom Penh now. She's a little better clued in to how much money that might be, given the local economy. And even she is shocked.

"I can spend that in a night drinking," she says.
* * *
A few weeks after the final session of the Garment Worker Open University, around 2,000 employees of June Textiles walked off the job in protest of two high-ranking company officials. Workers clearly articulated their concerns that the managers fired employees without cause, forged pay-related documents and meddled with union activities. In the months ahead, management will need to confront the new wave of empowerment among its worker base - and decide whether it will heed the call for change.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

i think education will help to make a difference. it is ignorance that kept people suppressed, etc. wake up, people!

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