For the past ten years or so, garments have comprised a stunning 80% of Cambodia's exports. Of this, 70% have been going to the United States, courtesy of a U.S. quota that allowed garments from Cambodia and other developing nations to enter the U.S. without paying the normal tariffs. The Cambodian garment industry employs tens of thousands of young women; the hours are long and wages low, but the jobs are considered plums in an otherwise bleak economy. Unfortunately, the garment future is not very bright.
As of January 1, 2005, the U.S. quotas expired, the result of complicated negotiations several years ago allowing China entry into the WTO (World Trade Organization) in trade for the end of U.S. tariff-exemption quotas. The underlying problem is that countries like Cambodia and the Philippines can't effectively compete against China's incredibly low labor costs. Many are predicting collapse of the garment industries in countries such as Cambodia.
Until the early 1990's, most garment production in Cambodia happened at small neighborhood sewing shops like this.
With international financing in the early 1990's, Cambodian production shifted to large factories such as the Sam Han garment factory in Phnom Penh's Russei Keo district. But Sam Han has been the scene of recent labor strife when managers closed the factory without paying salaries. Workers claim they haven't been paid for four months. On February 16, 1000 workers demonstrating outside of the factory were met by police who beat them and fired shots into the air. Police also reportedly used force to prevent demonstrators from marching to the National Assembly.
All this could mean only thing: I had to go find Sam Han and have a look for myself.
I rode a motorbike out to the Russei Keo neighborhood.
I asked around for the Sam Han Factory.
Everyone seemed to know were it was, pointing the way every block or two as I asked directions.
I stood in front of the factory gate for a minute taking pictures while a dozen security guards eyed me.
Dumb fucking camera-pointing tourist.
Fortunately, nobody tried to stuff me into the trunk of a Mercedes.
Left: barricades put up by the security forces for a demonstration held earlier in the day. Right: police are resting in the foreground sheds; the large factory buildings are visible in the background.
There are many other garment factories in the neighborhood. Sam Han is perhaps the first local garment factory to close with the end of tariff quotas, but certainly not the last. Globalization is upon us all.
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