Support Cambodian garment workers fighting for a better deal

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If you read this blog I am sure you already use your consumer dollar to build a better life for garment workers. Shopping ethically ensures that garment workers receive a fair wage and decent working conditions. But what do you do on those occasions that you are forced to buy something that goes against your values? What do you do when you’ve tried to find an ethical option, but despite your best efforts you end up shopping in the high street?

I’ve been there. I have found it impossible to find ethical children’s shoes. I’ve had to shop in Target for my son’s trousers because he needs a particular fit that it hard to find. I don’t need jeans yet, but jeans are something that I really need to try on before I buy them. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been there too.

Being an ethical shopper means you can’t ignore the reality of how garments are made. And how poorly garment workers are treated. Cambodian garment workers have long been fighting for a better deal. Some are even losing their lives for the fight, with police meeting peaceful protests with violence crackdowns.  Against this background, a Cambodian NGO, the United Sisterhood Alliance, is supporting garment workers to stand up for their rights, and an Australian NGO, the International Women’s Development Agency, is working to ensure that they have the funds and programmatic support they need to do this vital work.

The IWDA’s Empowering Women Garment Workers project directly supports the United Sisterhood Alliance in their work. There has been a lot written about waste and duplication by international NGOs in Cambodia and elsewhere, so it is important to note that the IWDA’s model is different. Instead of setting up their own office in country, they work through local partner NGOs who are established by and for local people, and staffed by local people who have a deep understanding of their communities. This type of model ensures that local people are empowered to deliver local solutions to local problems, and helps to avoid the neo-colonialism that can be so pervasive in the context of international development. Local projects delivered by local people are not only more effective, they are also cheaper, meaning that donations can go further on the ground.

The project supports women engaged in the garment industry, many of whom are very young and missed out on the opportunity to finish school, to develop a better understanding of their labour rights. It also provides training in self advocacy skills, and provides access to legal and counselling services. Young women who are consistently involved in the project receive leadership and facilitation skills training and go on to be leaders in the project and activists in their workplaces. Against the backdrop of pervasive sexual discrimination and harassment in garment industry, the United Sisterhood Alliance’s work provides a space in which women can become leaders within their industry, and their voices heard.

One such leader is a young woman named Sreymom (pictured at the beginning of the post), who moved to Phnom Penh at the age of 18 to work in the garment industry. She began to access to the United Sisterhood Alliance services and eventually went on to be employed as a facilitator for the project. Inspired by what she had learned about labour law and labour rights, Sreymom was inspired to pursue a legal career. She says that “workers become victims because they don’t understand the law” and she thought that if she studied Law then “we could fight for justice for ourselves”. But first she has to obtain her high school certificate.

Fast forward to this year, almost a decade since she began working in the garment industry, Sreymom has graduated from her law degree, which she managed to do whilst still working for the project to earn her living. The project has made a huge difference in her own life, and I am sure she will continue to make a difference in the lives of the young garment workers who were once her colleagues.

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to volunteer for a Chinese NGO who did some similar work, and I accompanied my colleague on her field trips to villages. Just 5 years earlier my colleague had never left the village in which she had grown up. She was much like Sreymom, and her involvement in a project had set her on a path to empowering her peers across the nation. Being fluent in Mandarin I was really able to understand what a powerful difference that a woman like my colleague (or a woman like Sreymom in Cambodia) can make. But despite the amazing work that projects like these are doing, they have difficultly connecting with the vital funds they need for their work. And that is where INGOs can as IWDA can assist. Connecting donors like us, with projects that doing amazing work.

So if, like me, you have purchased the occasional unethical garment, you can easily put things right by the values you hold in your heart. (I wanted to say “atone for you sins” but that is just too dark!) You might not be able to track down the garment worker who made your particular clothes, but you can assist Cambodian garment workers in their fight for better working conditions. By donating IWDA’s fundraising campaign, you can support the United Sisterhood Alliance, and women like Sreymom, to empower more young women in the garment industry. As you can see with Sreymom’s story, you cannot underestimate the power of this project (and your donations) to truly transform lives.


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