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Workers Moving From Factories to Nightclubs

On a crowded night inside a hotel and nightclub in Phnom Penh, young women in traditional Cambodian costumes sit under shimmering lights at the entrance of a hundred karaoke rooms, waiting for visitors.

Among these expectant young women, some are former garment workers, forced from Cambodia's factories by an increasing cost of living and stagnant wages.

Twenty-three-year-old Sopheak sits nervously among them.

Since she left Kampong Cham province for work in Phnom Penh three years ago, Sopheak has been expected to send most of her wages home to support her family, but by the beginning of 2008, as prices for food and fuel soared in the capital, she found she couldn't send enough.

She decided to shift jobs, moving to a karaoke nightclub, where she works for wages and tips, but where rights workers say she is in danger of moving toward prostitution.

"I made the decision to work at a karaoke club because I am able to save money for my mother," Sopheak says, as a romantic Khmer ballad rumbles through the room. "If I work at a factory, the wage is just enough for my stomach."

At the club she makes a $50 monthly wage, about the same as factory workers earned before a $6 supplement was added to their salaries in April. On top of that, she earns tips, between $2.50 and $7.50 per night.

The downside is that she is groped and kissed by her visitors, many of them rich Cambodian men.

"To think about it, I cry all the time," she says, and indeed her eyes moisten as she speaks. "To get four or five dollars, they force us to drink, they kiss us and fondle our breasts."

"To support my mother, I must not think about honor," she says.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, or GMAC, estimated in 2007 that garment factories employed as many as 350,000 workers in more than 300 factories. Most workers are young Cambodian women who have left behind a life in the countryside where they live under a dollar a day.

They are now facing low wages, hard hours, overtime shortages and a decline in orders from buyers in the US, where the economy is struggling.

The factors have added to the woes of soaring prices, workers say, pushing them for other work.

Chea Mony, president of Cambodia's Free Trade Union, says more women started shifting to nightclub work in 2008. More than 27,000 workers have left their factory jobs since April, he says, despite the $6 salary increase meant to help against rising costs.

Women who choose to work in the nightclubs can earn three times as much, he says.

GMAC official Kiang Monika agrees that there is a problem with workers leaving the factories, but he says the number is small and hasn't yet affected the industry.

Increased pressures have forced factory owners to find methods to encourage their workers, he says. Otherwise, their investment will collapse.

The garment industry is Cambodia's biggest export earner, but the sector has struggled in the face of the weakening global economy, posting only 8 percent growth in 2007, compared to 20 percent growth the year before.

Kek Galabru, president of human rights organization Licadho, says workers who turn to work at nightclubs can easily fall into prostitution.

But Om Mean, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Labor, says workers have a right to change jobs, and karaoke work is legal.

Legal or not, many women are not proud of the choice.

Srey Phea, 22, who is thin and speaks in a slow, shy voice, says she left her garment factory three months ago, in favor of nightclub work.

A month into her new job, she broke up with her boyfriend, and though the new employment has meant more free time and more money, she sometimes loses out on tips when she refuses to spend the night with visitors.

"My mother will never know that I was caressed and fondled," Srey Phea says. "I don't dare tell her."