PHNOM PENH (TrustLaw)--Sophea Chrek started working at a garment factory in Phnom Penh in 2000, at the age of 20, shortly after she dropped out of school to help support her family. Chrek found a way out of the garment industry in 2005, but she continues to surround herself with its politics and its workers' struggles as a program coordinator for Social Action for Change, a grassroots organization that helps organize and educate garment workers. Chrek talked with TrustLaw Women about her experiences as a former garment worker, a daughter of a garment worker, and what's changed since her – and her mother's – days in the factory.
You worked as a garment worker for five years, but never on a short-term contract, since those weren't really introduced until around the time you stopped working. Did you still find common ground with short-term contract workers?
As a permanent worker, it is much better and there is more security. But still, I felt pressure when I didn't work overtime, for instance. At the time when I was working, the employers wanted all the workers in the factory to work overtime because we needed to meet certain quotas. So the company says, 'I need this product completed, by this day.' No matter if you can finish it or not during your working hours, you have to stay and finish it. I tried not to do overtime because I was studying English after work then, but if you don't work overtime, the factory owners punish you and move you around in the factory to work in different places. Then they say, 'You are the one we need to stay because you can do everything.'
What are the biggest challenges that short-term contracts create for workers?
There are many challenges in terms of benefits and rights. If the employer finds out that you are pregnant they will “stop” your short-term contract. They don't call it dismissing you, which is a very serious term and can allow the worker to fight back. But is the meaning of the terms different or the same? Same. Same.
Short-term contracts limit workers' reproductive rights. Some workers have to ask their husbands to use condoms; some men understand and, some men, not as much. One worker once asked me to assist her to go and get an abortion. I asked her, 'Why do you want to do this? Abortions are not safe here and you have to be careful.' She explained three reasons. One involved the relationship with the man, the second was that she was working on a short term contract, and the third was her family. So, one main issue is that she needed to keep her job.
You come from a family of garment workers. Are your experiences similar to what your mother experienced 20 or 30 years ago?
My mom has worked in a garment factory since 1979, when all factories were state- owned. My mother, my father, my older sister, me and my younger sister have all worked in the garment industry. My mom hasn't worked since her factory closed a few years ago, but she wants to find another job. She knows the history of the industry here very well and what she has told me is to be calm. She knows the feeling of the young and that sometimes we cannot be calm and patient with what is happening to us. Also, with her experiences, you have to be aware that with Pol Pot ['Brother Number One' of the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime in the 1970s] and everything, she has seen many bad things, so her spirit is a bit lost and she is kind of a scared person. So she told me, 'I know that this situation is not right, but what can you do you alone? With the system the way that it is, you cannot change much.' But then I said, 'So what? We are going to wait to die? We cannot do anything?'
How did you get out of garment worker industry?
I responded to an advertisement for this job with an organization called Womyn's Agenda for Change. At the time I was a key organizer in my factory, but didn't think that I would be selected for the position. Of course, when I first came to know this organization, I didn't know what they were really talking about. But my friend really pushed me to get involved and then I was shocked about all that I didn't know, about rights or anything. I just know that when I felt angry I need to say something. Even before that, I said something, but when you know more you can form your sentences so they become a bit stronger.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)