PHNOM PENH (TrustLaw) – Nearly all of the 300,000-plus female Cambodian garment workers who stitch goods for Nike Inc., Gap Inc., and a host of other major Western companies can rely on one constant in their uncertain line of work: if they become pregnant, they will lose their jobs.
This reality reflects a relatively new system under which Cambodian factory owners grant workers only short-term contracts of two to nine months. The subjective nature of the contracts’ renewal allows employers to evade gender discrimination and maternity leave laws by refusing to renew a worker's short-term contract after her pregnancy becomes evident.
Within the past year, a handful of garment workers began furtively to organize and learn about labor laws. They are doing this independently of the dominant hundreds of autonomous and factory-controlled unions that are led mostly by men.
The garment industry in Cambodia is the low-income country’s main industry. In 2010, garment exports totaled USD $3 billion or 90 percent of Cambodia's total exports, according to the International Labor Organization.
But the vast majority of workers who make the industry tick remain unaware of their basic rights on the job, such as 30-days of maternity leave with 50 percent of their pay, as long as a worker has been employed for more than one year, even on a series of short-term contracts.
Veteran pregnant workers routinely and resignedly accept their dismissal.
“I hid my pregnancy for six months. When my employer saw I was pregnant and wanted to stop my contract I lied about how far along I was,” said Cha Lyna, 36, a garment worker who was in her eighth month of pregnancy when she spoke with TrustLaw. “Already I know I will work just until the end of this month. I'm angry, but what can I do? Maybe after I give birth they will let me have my job back, but maybe not.”
Four months pregnant, co-worker Poule Chantu's stomach protruded only slightly, but she still wore baggy shirts to work. She said it is not a question of if she would lose her job, but when.
Entry garment workers often travel as teenagers from rural provinces to the capital city of Phnom Penh to work long, six-day weeks in the factories. Monthly salaries average $61 a month, about half of which is often sent home. Wages can rise to about $100 a month, with cash earned through illegal overtime hours.
The women typically live secluded lives on the outskirts of the city, clustered in run-down apartment buildings within walking distance of the unmarked factory compounds. Living costs are slashed by squeezing five to seven roommates into one small room and eating two small meals a day.
Short-term contracts serve as a “very strong tool to eliminate the fundamental rights of the workers,” who lack the education and resources to know and defend their rights, said Moeun Tola, chief of the labor program at the Phnom Penh-based non-profit organization Community Legal and Education Center.
First introduced in factories around 2004, short-term contracts have yet to become major points of contention in garment worker protests and factory shut-downs. These mostly revolve around wage increases and treatment of union leaders.
Moeun said all three issues are interconnected.
“A worker can stay on [in a series of] short-term contract for years, making it so she cannot get a raise, which would otherwise be required if she was a permanent worker and worked for more than one year,” he said. “Joining a union is another risk to not getting your contract renewed.”
Near a factory that manufactures clothing for Swedish retailer Hennes &Mauritz AB, known as H&M, around 40 women each month visit a drop-in information center. The center was created to provide information about labor laws in Cambodia and problems with short-term contracts. However, operated without the knowledge of factory employers, the center doesn't hold much appeal for most garment workers, according to those who visit it.
“I try to tell co-workers about the center and labor laws and sometimes they listen, but often they say, 'You are crazy. What you are talking about is useless. Go away so I can work,'” said local union leader Rum Pary, one of the few female union leaders in this string of factories.
The center is one of several in garment factory neighborhoods, all supported by Social Action for Change, a grassroots movement whose organizers include former garment workers. The initiative helps workers gain confidence and knowledge. Nevertheless, education cannot guarantee workers’ rights will be upheld.
After Touch Sat, 27, a frequent visitor to the center, became sick with an intestinal virus in September 2010, she requested and was denied a day off from work. Her union rejected her request for support.
Shortly afterward, her short-term contract was not renewed, but she still comes to the information center.
“After my requests for help were denied and I lost my job, I felt helpless, but I keep coming here to get more support,” said Touch, a worker of four years. “There's nothing else I can do.”
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)