Commentary Human Rights

Sex Work or Human Trafficking? Race and Imperialism in CNN Report From Cambodia

Anne Elizabeth Moore

In a December report from Cambodia, CNN failed to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking, and did nothing to help viewers see how anti-human trafficking initiatives really work under globalization: as acts of cultural imperialism.

“Roaches scatter when the light comes,” Mira Sorvino says in a December video report for CNN, describing a group of shirtless brown-skinned men, faces blurred for the camera, who decline consent to be filmed by getting up and going inside as her videography crew approaches. This group of men weathered the illegal bombing of their country, Cambodia, by her country, the United States, and then survived mass killings under the Khmer Rouge and two decades of civil war after that, all of which left the country so impoverished that people there currently live on about two dollars a day, or less than half the living wage. Sorvino has no sympathy, however, and she doubles down: “Roaches and rats scatter when the light comes,” she says angrily. Her comparison of these men to two of the world’s most hated creatures would, in other contexts, be seen as full-on racist imperialism, but Sorvino feels justified using the slurs because Don Brewster, a white human trafficking abolitionist living in Cambodia, told her these men are sex traffickers. And she believes him.

“It’s not OK to sell children to pedophiles,” she says to the men, who she has already learned do not speak English. “Protect your children. Do not hurt your children. Protect them.”

“I can’t deal with the reality of it,” she says finally, walking away from the scattered group of men. But she has dealt with no reality whatsoever—only rumor.

More Than Gender

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In January, Soraya Chemaly wrote a thoughtful and necessary response to the CNN report, focusing on the accompanying written story, “The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into the Sex Trade,” and not the above-described video. Chemaly rightly called out the news organization for skimping on the facts in a rush to present a market-ready savior narrative. “The piece seemed to want us to know that Cambodian mothers are doing terrible things to their daughters, but that help, in the form of a nice American man, is on the way,” Chemaly wrote.

Chemaly correctly sets allegations of human trafficking against a backdrop of global capitalism and misogyny. Human trafficking is a gendered and classed notion, certainly—these are stories, especially in Cambodia, about women’s economic opportunity. Yet overlooking that these allegations are also about race allows us to miss how anti-human trafficking initiatives really work under globalization: as acts of cultural imperialism, of which misogyny is only a part (although a large one).

CNN covers up the impact of these human trafficking abolitionists in failing to distinguish between consensual sex work and human trafficking. The lack of distinction is unfortunately common at anti-trafficking NGOs. In fact, when Chemaly’s article appeared I was visiting one in Phnom Penh.

With 150 clients looking to escape from what the NGO called “human trafficking,” I thought the program manager might be able to shed light on the difference between trafficking and sex work. “Trafficking would be when a woman is sold against her will,” she told me. “Most of [the women here] were sold initially, or at least put under a lot of pressure from their families, to go into the sex industry themselves.”

But putting pressure on a woman isn’t the same as forcing her to do something against her will, and when I mentioned this to the NGO staffer, she admitted that these distinctions can get confusing.

“There are women who say, ‘My mom got really sick and we didn’t have anyone to pay her bills, so I decided to that I was going to traffic myself.’ But then we have some who say, ‘My aunt told me she got me a job as a domestic servant, and the next thing I knew I was being dropped off at a brothel or karaoke bar and being told that that’s where I worked now.’ So you get both, and then you also get [situations] where things aren’t so clear,’” she explained.

Her use of the phrase “decided to traffic myself” was particularly confusing, if the definition of trafficking disallows autonomous consent, so I asked her again about the distinction between trafficking and sex work.

“There’s definitely a line that gets blurry,” she said. “We also have a lot of women who maybe crossed that line. Maybe they were initially sold against their will, a lot of times sold as under-aged girls, but then there came a point where they didn’t owe a debt to the brothel owner anymore, but then they continued working as sex workers. So they aren’t being held in chains, which doesn’t happen very often in Cambodia anymore, but they are being entrapped by lack of any other alternatives, and the fact that there’s still pressure on them from their families to generate an income.”

Those economic and familial pressures may be real, but context is necessary to figure out whether or not they trump autonomy. Absent cultural context, the slippages in the term “sex trafficking” allow a wide range of practices to be condemned, while a very narrow and distinctly Western mode of correction is installed. It’s not just women who are being stripped of agency—all Cambodians are.

“Sex Trafficking” in Cambodia

Cambodians have lived in poverty for generations, and the local history of commercial sex is as complicated as the history of the nation itself. After the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Vietnamese-installed regime, the United Nations moved in to install its own government in 1992 in an effort to shuttle in the current democratic system. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) brought in droves of highly paid internationals—mostly men, and many Westerners—to run the Southeast Asian nation. Some contend that the sex industry had been established in the French colonial days; by the 1990s Cambodian women were largely running the trade. UNTAC forces, and the unfathomably high wages they were paid, only increased demand, which in turn increased supply. Prime Minister Hun Sen even suggested in 2008 that AIDS would stand as the legacy of the UNTAC era.

Before we lionize (a lá “happy hooker” metaphors) or chastise (a lá CNN) female entertainment entrepreneurs, however, note that Susan Rosas in her paper Sex Trafficking in Cambodia as a Complex Humanitarian Emergency suggests that women had been left out of the UNTAC vision for a future of Cambodia. They weren’t, for example, offered positions of power, despite the UN’s tepid mandate to intervene on human rights abuses, nor were effective policies limiting domestic violence or sexual assault put in place.

Of course there’s no need to congratulate women who sell their daughters for sex, but folks left out of traditional avenues to power and economic sustainability will find ways to survive. And women-run brothels both profit from masculine desire, and make jobs for women in an environment often hostile to their creation.

NGOs don’t see it that way, and trumpet female victimhood and its corollary description of women in the sex industry as “trafficked.” Arguing that, in an ideal world, no woman would willingly sell sex, abolitionists aim to eliminate the industry entirely. Sex workers, when asked, note the absence of this illusory world. The Phnom Penh Post found in 2009 that close to 90 percent of sex workers in Cambodia felt that prostitution was their best available job.

A Slippery Slope

Cambodian culture has traditionally shielded women from public life to focus on men and babies. It’s rare that gender norms are ever transcribed, but a 19th Century text called the Chbap Srei artfully combined our modern forces of advertising, social codes, and legal restrictions into a rulebook for girls. (There’s also one for boys; it’s shorter.) So, although great strides have been made among Cambodian women in recent years—in politics, activism, and culture—the Chbap Srei’s prescriptions haunt even Millennials, who want to change their country, sure, but want to take care of their families first.

Family, in Cambodia, is important. It’s part of the reason why the lack of employment options for women in the country gets overlooked—many women do leave (or fail to enter) the workforce to raise children. But the growth of the garment industry isn’t just due to fast fashion’s increasing production lines: Parents send daughters off from the provinces to work in factories so the family farm can keep going. “Children feel responsible for taking care of their parents and will do whatever is necessary to earn income,” a report from Action Pour Les Enfants explains. (Note that a lack of agency in maternity or apparel work never brings on allegations of “trafficking.”)

For if we look at the sex trade in Cambodia in economic terms—leaving aside the question of consent for a young woman who cares about her family—it makes a lot of sense. Garment workers earn $100 per month before overtime, in the only regulated minimum wage in the country. Women with degrees can earn $85 to $100 per month as high school teachers or $50 to $70 as elementary school teachers, although paychecks, sent by the government, are often late, and both workforces usually resort to bribing students the equivalent of a quarter a day to survive.

Laborers at a local private university tell me they earn $60 per month, as do grocery store clerks. And women who can raise or borrow the capital to buy a cart and supplies can make $75 to 
$150 per month as food vendors.

By comparison, hostess bars typically pay between $50 and $60 per month before tips. Sex work—which hostess bars may allow for but don’t mandate—may bring in between $60 and $100 per month from Cambodian or other Asian men, or as much as $20 per night from Westerners. And the living wage in Cambodia for single-earner households, based on projected cost-of-living increases since 2009’s Cambodia Institute of Development Study findings, runs about $150 per month.

There just aren’t very many work opportunities in the country, and it’s unclear that eliminating one of them will change that, even in the long-run. It is clear that, in the short-run, women and their families will starve.

Moreover, the impetus for abolition requires examination: If economic coercion turns all sex work into trafficking—if, indeed, one can traffic oneself—then all sex work, in short, is bad. It’s a slippery slope to all sex out of wedlock being bad, or all sex being bad, or, eventually, all women being bad. Melissa Gira Grant notes at Salon just how slippery this slope is, and who profits from the easy descent: the faith-based ministries that may, on one hand, be advocating abstinence campaigns domestically, and removing women from the sex industry abroad.

Indeed, one of the funders of the NGO I visited, Love146, claims not to be a faith-based organization but does claim to be “inspired by Christian faith.” It intends to abolish “child trafficking and exploitation. Nothing less.” Yet its 2012-13 annual report indicates that a full 56 percent of the youth it serves are Western—in fact, they’re participants in “tell your friends” campaigns in Connecticut and Boston, who may have had abstinence messaging filtered into their human trafficking awareness campaign. One suspects that domestic in-school lectures regarding sexual exploitation “inspired by the Christian faith” run a bit afoul of the mission to end child trafficking, and the concerns for such NGOs mount quickly.

Agape International Missions, founded by Dan Brewster, the focus of the CNN report, is far less subtle. “CHRIST’S CHURCH FIGHTING THE GROUND WAR ON SEX TRAFFICKING IN CAMBODIA” is the group’s straightforward mission statement. Through media outreach (CNN being only one example), skills-building initiatives oddly reminiscent of garment factories, and voluntourism, the organization hopes that “your heart will be transformed by Jesus to be a voice for the voiceless, be an advocate for AIM and joining us in partnership (sic).” On the ground, the work of this anti-sex-trafficking organization differs not at all from Christian missionary work. In a traditionally Buddhist country with a growing Muslim population, this has severe and concerning implications.

To what degree anti-human trafficking initiatives are merely the cheery new face of traditional Christian fundamentalism is unclear. But that’s not the only point of confusion raised by CNN’s report.

The Reality of Sex Trafficking

The problems of reporting on anti-human trafficking organizations go well beyond CNN. During my visit to the NGO in Phnom Penh I was told by the program manager that none of the information she gave me about clients would be confirmed by clients. A condition of visiting the center, in fact, was that I agree to the group’s rules before entering the facility, one of which was that I “refrain from asking clients about their past lives in the sex industry, because that causes them shame.”

I asked if that applied to journalists, and if so, how they verified stories they heard there.

“I guess it’s just a matter of trust,” she told me. “All of our clients’ stories come through interviews with our trained social workers and counselors, and you could talk with one of them if you wanted to confirm. But we don’t want to put our clients through that.”

Mediated “first-hand” stories are what anti-human trafficking work is built on. Similarly, the CNN report claims to be offering women the chances to tell their stories on camera, but these are just as mediated: by Khmer-to-English translators, by religious instruction, and by the economic coercion of a woman in poverty being offered resources by a rich media outlet and a sponsoring organization.

Like Mira Sorvino, we believe their stories are the “reality” of sex trafficking. But the reality here—that allegations of sex trafficking hide misogynist, racist, and imperialist desires—is far more distressing.

Analysis Religion

Crowdsourcing Bigotry: What Anti-Contraception and Anti-LGBTQ Laws Have in Common

Katherine Cross

What conservatives really mean when they talk about "religious freedom" has been revealed already by their longstanding crusade against the birth control benefit afforded by the Affordable Care Act. For them, having religious freedom requires the right to discriminate—against specific people, and in a specific way.

Recently, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have legalized discrimination on the basis of religious belief and which was chiefly targeted at LGBTQ people.

To look at the outrage expressed by many conservatives about Gov. Brewer’s veto, one is immediately struck by the vagueness of their declarations; they delicately eschew specifics about what they mean by “religious freedom.” But we have been here before. What conservatives really mean has been revealed already by their longstanding crusade against the birth control benefit afforded by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For them, having religious freedom requires the right to discriminate—against specific people, and in a specific way.

Three legal initiatives stand out. The (mercifully unsuccessful) bid in California to roll back protections for transgender students via referendum; the SB 1062-style laws being considered in Georgia, Missouri, and other states; and the continuing attack on the contraception mandate.

What unites them all is an attempt to subtly enthrone a specific interpretation of religious freedom that facilitates institutional control of women’s bodies and those of LGBTQ people.

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All three appeal to tradition, but the legal gymnastics required for each are strikingly novel in the history of constitutional law. The battle against the ACA’s inclusion of women’s health care, for instance, is necessitating the creation of something new to our democracy: the idea that a corporation is a person with religious liberty, above and beyond that of its owners and employees. More than just a vehicle for a powerful individual’s beliefs, now conservative activists seek to make the corporation a person unto itself with immanent religiosity that is constitutionally protected.

Similarly, the logic employed by those who opposed California’s trans rights bill, by necessity, conceives of trans students as agents of the state, violating the privacy rights of cisgender students—an odd choice that diverged from the ways the concept of “privacy” has been legally employed in the past, as a bulwark against the intervention of the state in the private affairs of citizens.

Just as the shape of structural racism has evolved from Jim Crow to the regime of “color blindness,” there is a new subtlety to the heirs of the movement that criminalized abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and transsexuality in years past. The use of “religious freedom” as a legal shield is not new—it has a long, ugly history intertwined with U.S. racism—but the subtlety in naming the target is.

These legal strategies are indirect—aiming squarely at a group without announcing it, and saturating the PR side of things with generalities, obfuscations, and appeals to abstract ideals (like “freedom of religion”) without specifying what they mean. We see this, too, in the way anti-abortion laws, clearly aimed at cutting off women’s access to a constitutionally guaranteed medical procedure, usually do not seek to explicitly ban the procedure but instead set unreasonable standards for abortion clinics (such as mandating that all physicians have admission privileges at local hospitals, or that clinics must have facilities identical to large hospitals) that ensure clinic closures or cost increases.

In those cases, “women’s health” is the standard around which these legislators rally, averring that these laws are merely designed to ensure the safety of women patients in these clinics, even as they deny women access to health care.

Abstract principles without specifics are the rhetoric du jour of those who seek ever more creative ways of justifying ever more onerous controls on the lives and bodies of women and LGBTQ people.

This brings us back to the issue of “religious freedom” and what it has come to mean in this perverse economy of discourse.

At heart, what unites the contraception fight with SB 1062 and the anti-trans referendum fight in California is that, in the legal constructs of the conservative activists, the bearers of rights are the already privileged, and the right being stipulated is the anti-democratic right to enlist ordinary citizens in the violent policing of others. It invigorates the cissexist parent, the homophobic restaurateur, the misogynist businessman into turning private prejudices into public practice, backed by the full faith and credit of the state. But rather than using, say, the blunt instruments of state power to enforce these laws, it cuts off certain citizens from state recourse and makes of other citizens the judges, juries, and executioners.

These initiatives are designed to crowdsource institutional prejudice.

While it may be difficult to ban contraception outright, it is easier for the political right to enlist, say, pharmacists (via “conscience clauses,” which operate on a similarly vague definition of religious liberty), or business owners to deny contraception to women customers and employees, limiting access in the same indirect way that much anti-abortion legislation does.

Similarly, the anti-LGBTQ laws that have blossomed like a rash on the American legal landscape—putatively about defending religious freedom, and often not explicitly mentioning LGBTQ people in the law’s text—are another example of this pointedly indirect form of legislating, and they present a marked contrast with the attempts of the Bush administration to impose a top-down ban on same-sex marriage via constitutional amendment a decade ago. Now the laws are chiefly aimed at enlisting business owners and other service providers (including those employed by the state) in strengthening a culture of homophobic and transphobic prejudice.

For example, Georgia’s law (put on ice as of February 28), the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, stipulates that “[a] person’s civil right to exercise of religion shall not be burdened even if the burden results from a rule, law, ordinance, regulation, or policy of general applicability.” What such a bill proposes is an end-run around existing state and federal laws against discrimination or laws that compel equal accommodation.

The negative space thus created is one in which people’s prejudices, so long as they can be justified through appeal to a tenet of one’s faith, are used to police the behavior and lives of others.

This is exactly the intention of a law being proposed in Idaho (temporarily withdrawn as of February 19) which empowers individuals to ignore any local statutes or ordinances in their state that ban anti-LGBT discrimination, such as those currently in force in Boise and Coeur d’Alene.

The proposed Georgia law states further that “[t]he religious liberty interest protected by this chapter is an independent liberty that occupies a preferred position,” outlining one of the guiding ideologies at work here: In the eternal contest between competing liberties in a democracy, a narrow definition of religious freedom—the freedom to discriminate against another person on the basis of religious belief—ought to be removed from public contention, and understood as a “preferred” liberty, impervious to challenge save in the case of a “clear and compelling governmental interest of the highest order.” One need not be a dour skeptic to surmise that the bar for such an “interest” is likely set stratospherically high.

In considering the Hobby Lobby case, now before the Supreme Court, which seeks to establish a form of corporate personhood to be imbued with religious freedom, it is worth remembering that in spite of the isomorphism with the eerily similar Citizens United case (which gave corporations an independent right to free speech), this has not been a battle spearheaded by the business lobby. Indeed, a striking fact about this case is that no Fortune 500 companies have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on Hobby Lobby’s behalf, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—normally a reliable friend of the far right before the Supreme Court—has also remained silent.

I suspect this is because if Hobby Lobby were to win its fight against women’s right to contraception coverage, it would open a black hole in corporate law that would create difficulties for most businesses (what happens to limited liability if the owner and corporation are seen as a unity?)—but what it creates is a new, privatized institutional mechanism to promote and maintain a misogynist health-care exclusion, based on puritanism and paternalism about women’s bodies. If you can’t get the government to do it, why not use private enterprise?

That is the driving interest of those who seek to create “religious exemptions” from the Affordable Care Act.

I would also submit another idea for consideration: It is indeed a strong critique of these laws to say that they are so vague that any “sincerely held” religious belief could be used to sire any number of “exemptions.” What if a New Age spiritualist only wanted their employee health plan to cover homeopathic medicine, or a Jehovah’s Witness CEO sought to make employees pay for their own blood transfusions? But I think that what these laws depend on is that an arbitrary social standard—shared by state legislators and some of their constituents—is the informal “test” applied to any given case. Denial of contraception and discrimination against queer couples and trans people is commonly accepted among many in this country as an expression of sincere religiosity. But our hypothetical New Ager or Jehovah’s Witness lacks access to a powerful lobby that will enforce and reify their definition of religious purity.

Discretion is left to those who will enforce these statutes whether a given invocation of religious freedom ought to be “burdened” by state or federal law, which opens a perilously wide door for the collective reinforcement of any subjective prejudice shared by large swathes of the population—such as Rush Limbaugh’s belief that contraception is entirely pegged to a woman’s sex drive, or that transgender students are rapists in waiting, or that Christianity is under attack by LGBT people.

“I’ll know it when I see it” could become a widely enshrined legal standard, and it is likely this which conservatives are banking on to ensure that their laws are not used in ways they would not approve of (say, by Muslim Americans).

These three legal fights—the attack on trans students in California, the battle for the ACA contraception mandate, and the anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bills—are links in a chain that connects directly to the recent onslaught of anti-choice legislation in the United States, united in their efforts to create indirect but concrete barriers to the exercise of equal rights and bodily autonomy by women and LGBTQ people.

As of this writing, the tide of these anti-LGBTQ bills seems to be breaking—Jan Brewer vetoed Arizona’s, Georgia’s has been withdrawn, and Mississippi’s is being reworked. In the words of Rachel Maddow, the bills seem to shrivel up in the sunlight of national media attention. This is encouraging, as is the nationwide opposition to these bills that has drawn together a broad coalition. But we should not mistake a temporary retreat for an end to this issue. Even as these bills expire in committee, the threat they represent remains real in the waves of laws that seek to regulate women’s bodies.

After all, the same conservative Christian organization that supported and co-drafted Arizona’s SB 1062—the Center for Arizona Policy—also just helped to pass HB 2284, which allows random government inspections of abortion clinics, and makes it a class 1 misdemeanor to in any way help “a minor avoid Arizona’s parental consent requirements” for getting an abortion. It’s called the “Women’s Health Protection Act.”

Indeed, it can be argued that Republicans tried this spate of anti-LGBTQ bills in the first place because similar legal logic has been employed to such great effect against women’s reproductive rights, and as HB 2284 makes clear, we are most certainly not at the end of that fight.

Analysis Human Rights

Made in Cambodia: Garment Workers Fight Gap, H&M and Others for a Minimum Wage

Michelle Tolson

Cambodian garment workers are fighting for a livable wage. Of the half-million garment workers in the county, 90 percent are women living on about $3 a day, not enough to eat much less afford housing. The majority of textiles exported are destined for brands like Gap and Wal-Mart, as Cambodia enjoys “most favored nation” status with the United States under the World Trade Organization’s free trade agreement.

As 2013 drew to a close, Cambodian garment factory workers began striking in Phnom Penh for a livable wage. Recently, the Ministry of Labor had approved a $95-a-month wage, and while this was more than the $80 a month workers had been living on, they held out for $160, which was the bottom end of a “living wage” for Cambodia, according to labor research.

Another $5 a month was offered, but workers rejected it. By January 3, the non-violent strikes ended in a military crackdown and riots. Four garment workers were shot dead, another was shot in the chest and is missing, and more than 30 were injured. A ban on public assembly was put in place, and 23 labor leaders were arrested.

International media coverage showed Cambodian youth clad in skinny jeans, covered in blood and running from the military.

Lost in coverage of the social unrest were the women behind the movement.

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The Life of a Cambodian Garment Worker

Of the half-million garment workers in the county, 90 percent are women living on about $3 a day. The garment industry accounts for about 80 percent of Cambodia’s exports. The majority of textiles exported (70 percent) are destined for popular brands in the United States, like Gap and Wal-Mart, as Cambodia enjoys “most favored nation” status with the United States under the World Trade Organization’s free trade agreement. Supplying the U.S. brands are factories based in Cambodia but owned by East Asian businessmen who contract with western brands. Cambodian women fill unskilled labor positions, sewing the clothes.

Hailing from remote regions in the countryside, factory workers typically cram into the back of a truck once a month in order to visit their families, who they help support. About 80 percent of the country still lives as subsistence farmers with young garment workers providing a vital link, sending money home to aging parents and siblings in school.

Not only is the garment industry the lifeblood of the country, it is a lifeline to impoverished families.

Sothary Kun, a former garment worker turned singer-activist who supported the recent strike with her five bandmates (also former garment workers), said workers spend about $10 to $25 each month traveling to their villages. Fuel in Cambodia costs more than it does in the United States, and workers pack into trucks that are dangerously full so they can afford to travel.

While families eke out a living as subsistence farmers, their daughters try to make a life in the city. The scenario might have exciting implications for young women living away from home for the first time, but rising costs of living have not kept pace with wages.

“Usually a worker has to spend approximately $15 to $20 for a rented room per month, shared between two to seven people,” explained Kun. These tiny rooms, located in Phnom Penh’s garment district, are built to house two people, but most take on roommates to cut costs. “This is not including the utility cost, such as water, electricity, and sanitation.” Garment workers pay for electricity prices that are among the highest in the world—four to five times more than in neighboring Vietnam, as Cambodia imports much of its electricity. Only 25 percent of the country is supplied by the government grid, according to the World Bank.

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), an organization that advocates for labor rights, explained a typical work day for garment workers is ten to 12 hours long, six days a week. “Most garment workers are in debt $50 each, able to pay just the interest rates on their loans each month.”

Workers take out loans because they depend on overtime to meet their monthly expenses, which are “unpredictable,” according to Thida Khus, executive director of SILAKA, an organization that trains women for leadership.

“Workers commonly spend about $1.25 to $2.50 [a day] for three meals,” said Kun. They often use rice to stretch their food, buying one meal consisting of vegetables and protein to share between four or more workers.

CLEC is trying to get popular brands like H&M and Gap, the largest companies sourcing from Cambodia to U.S. markets, to implement a free meal program in the factories, as malnutrition is common among workers. Mass faintings have affected up to 4,000 of the estimated 600,000 workers, caused by hunger, the long working hours, poor ventilation and heat, and the chemicals used to treat fabric, according to labor research.

Wages have been kept low to keep Cambodia competitive in the industry. The current free trade agreement under the World Trade Organization began after the previous Multi-Fiber Agreement phased out in 2004. Hailed as a benefit to development, unit prices for garments sold to western countries instead dropped, though overall the orders increased. Flexibility in contracts is preferred by western brands sourcing from Cambodia, so short-term contracts have replaced longer ones. This has contributed to the worsening of working conditions, as documented by a 2012 World Bank report.

Moeun called the low wages and short-term contracts “two hand-cuffs” that ensnare garment workers. He found in his labor research that many female workers get unsafe abortions from unlicensed medical personnel out of fear of not getting re-hired when their contract ends; factories prefer workers who take no sick leave when new contracts come up. What’s more, the International Labor Organization noted the “low fertility rates” of garment workers, finding many cease menstruation from malnutrition.

The Popular, Profitable Companies Behind the Garment Factories

On January 3, a special military unit was called in by South Korean factory owners to break the strike and get workers back on the job, according to a translation by South Korean trade unions of the Facebook page of their embassy in Cambodia. The post said:

We are cooperating closely with the military and police authorities for the protection of Korean companies. As a result of this, the military [has] taken special measures specifically to protect Korean companies in the Kanadi [Canadia] industrial park.

The crackdown took place in front of Yakjin factory, a Korean business, which reportedly supplies Gap, Old Navy, American Eagle, and Wal-Mart. (South Korean trade unions also point out that Yakjin Trading Corp., owner of the subsidiary factory in Cambodia, was acquired by the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, on December 24.)

After news of this broke, a demonstration supported by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and Cambodian migrants in South Korea was staged on January 10. South Korean trade unions were also embroiled in their own battle over the privatization of railroads at the time, which increased the sense of solidarity with Cambodian garment factory workers.

“The Korean government miscalculated the response from civil society and trade unions, which are quite strong in Korea,” said Dennis Arnold, a researcher specializing in labor, migration, and citizenship in Southeast Asia, who has written several reports on Cambodia’s garment industry.

(When calls and emails were made to the Carlyle Group about the military intervention, the press office in Hong Kong deferred to South Korean Yakjin Trading Corp, which did not respond to inquiries.)

Rights activists and trade unions are hoping the outrage South Koreans and Cambodians feel reaches U.S. consumers. Cambodia is one of the top-ten suppliers of garments and textiles flowing into the United States from developing countries, according to Arnold.

As Sophea Chrek, interim coordinator for the Workers Information Center (WIC) and a former garment worker, noted, “There are many famous brands, U.S. based corporations such as the Wal-Mart, Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister [subsidiary of Abercrombie] … and Gap, which make a lot of profit from Cambodia.”

In 2013, Wal-Mart’s sales revenue was $469 billion, with a net income of $17 billion, up from the previous year. For the same year, Gap Inc. reported revenue of $15.65 billion, with profits listed at $1.14 billion.

Despite the profits, Gap Inc. won the intentionally shaming “Public Eye” award at Davos for having the worst business practices in the garment industry. Wal-Mart also has been criticized for its poor business practices. Both corporations refused to sign an agreement with Bangladesh unions to improve working conditions for factories they contract with.

“How much do Cambodian workers earn in total per year, compared to a Wal-Mart or Abercrombie’s’ CEO salary a month?” asked Chrek. “Workers’ demands in the past weeks were to have a better and dignified living. They did not demand for a standard living [comparable to] those companies’ CEOs.”

Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke reportedly earned a salary of $1.3 million in 2011, not including bonuses; his total compensation for that year was $17.6 million.

Garment workers’ salary will increase to $100 a month, or $1,200 a year before overtime, in February. (Though the garment workers rejected the extra $5-per-month hike, pushing for a more significant increase, with the strike broken up and a ban on public assembly, they have few options but to accept it.)

Prior to the 1950s, the United States and Europe manufactured their own clothes but moved production to Japan in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Production shifted again in the 1970s and 80s to Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, which then dominated the manufacturing market as newly industrialized economies. As their own economies grew, they outsourced production in the ’90s to lower-income countries, but continued to supply western buyers, retaining ownership of factories. To date, these East Asian countries own 93 percent of the factories in Cambodia and supply western markets.

Gap Inc., founded in 1969 in San Francisco, now produces 98 percent of its merchandise outside of the United States, in 40 countries, through undisclosed venders, according to its annual report. H&M, based in Sweden but popular in the United States, contracts with factories in a number of countries, including 37 facilities in Cambodia.

Because of the nation’s poor infrastructure and high electricity prices, foreign factory owners claim Cambodia is “not competitive,” compared to production costs in neighboring Vietnam, and they keep wages artificially low so western buyers won’t flee.

However, as garment work researcher Dennis Arnold explains, the situation is more complicated than that. “There are other costs that aren’t so easily factored in such as the ‘BBCs,’ or bribes, bureaucracy and corruption,” he said. “In the U.S., there are corporate contributions to political campaigns for instance. China [and] Vietnam too [have] this problem, but it takes a more parasitic form in Cambodia. [The government] invests nothing in [the industry] and seems to take the view of getting as much money out of it as they can.”

While there are an estimated 400 garment factories in Cambodia, the country only has a 7 percent domestic ownership stake in the industry, owing to its slow recovery from decades of conflict and the Khmer Rouge years, when an estimated one-third of the population died.

Viable Solutions

Arnold sees a three-pronged compromise from the Cambodian government, U.S. brands, and East Asian factory owners to address the needs of garment workers.

“Reduce the ‘BBCs,’” which drain profits that should go back to the garment worker, said Arnold. “A structural reform in the Cambodian government needs to take place for this to change, but it appears the CPP [Cambodia’s ruling party] lacks political will.

“[Clothing brands] should give a higher price. Just 1 cent extra paid per t-shirt for instance would help. And factory owners could take a smaller share of the profits,” he said.

H&M, a publicly traded company, had a revenue of $18.13 billion and net profit of $2.58 billion last year. To date, the company has been one of the more responsive brands following the conflict.

When pressed about labor advocates’ concerns, H&M spokesperson Elin Hallerby responded in an email: “Like with all our suppliers’ workers making clothes for H&M, the Cambodian workers’ health and nutrition is also concern for H&M. We are aware of the issue about lunch that CLEC brings up, we have a good dialogue with them and this is an important question for us.”

H&M said it envisions the creation of model factories, “two factories in Bangladesh and one in Cambodia,” where human rights are highlighted, implementing a living wage by 2018. The model factory scheme suggests that the company will be involved at all stages of production to determine “best practices,” with Hallerby noting rather diplomatically (and possibly alluding to corruption) that production costs are not solely determined by wages.

To immediately address human rights issues, H&M has announced a “partnership” with Sweden-based Civil Rights Defenders (CRD), but did not specify the details, deferring to the group to explain their plans. CRD responded in an email that while the details are still being determined, they call “for the release of human rights defenders and garment workers detained for their participation in the peaceful protests. We urge the authorities to lift the ban on public gatherings and to initiate an investigation into the violence, holding those responsible to account.”

When asked his thoughts on the initiative, CLEC’s Tola Moeun said, “I’m not aware of that project [Civil Rights Defenders] and don’t understand how [it] would help workers. H&M should just work with its suppliers to pay $160 per month as a minimum wage if they have a real commitment. No law prohibits businesses to pay workers higher than national minimum wage.”

Meanwhile, since the strike, activists are being watched by the authorities. “We were informed by the [garment] workers that some people asked who we are and how many of us there are,” said Sothary Kun when asked about her and her bandmates’s well-being.

WIC’s Sophea Chrek said, “Some of [the leaders of the strike] reported that they were threatened to either be dismissed or sued in court if they are involved in the next action by [showing them] that they have the video of their previous action,” alluding to the authority’s use of plain-clothes police who video record activists. Mostly, however, she worries about the workers who have lived in fear since the crackdown.

“I felt so upset about the dead,” said Soung Vannak, a 31-year-old garment worker from a factory in Phnom Penh who demonstrated peacefully with her colleagues during the strike. “We just demanded our wage to improve our life.”

“Why did they kill them?” asked Vannak of the workers who died.

Chrek has no easy answers, but she has suggestions for consumers. “Question the brand companies about the current, serious violations and intimidation happening to workers producing your clothes,” she said. She suggests doing research on the companies consumers buy their clothes from and choosing those that favor “fairness” in their treatment of workers.

While a military intervention might mean stability for foreign interests, it has created fear for Cambodia’s garment workers.