Early one recent morning, Tol Sokhim rode her bicycle from her home in Kandal province’s Prek Treng village to a small workroom 2 kilometers away. The 20-year-old had recently quit work at the Good Fame garment factory, a bit farther away, for the workroom, to save on transportation costs and to feel a bit more secure in her commute.
Tol Sokhim is like many workers who have begun working in a shadowy area of garment manufacturing in the country, that of subcontracted workrooms, unregistered businesses where conditions can be worse than factories and labor laws ignored.
“The main factory is far from my house, and I have to spend more, so I changed to work in the workroom near my house,” she said. That saved her $6.50 a month, a considerable percentage of her wages.
Another worker, Mao Marea, in Sa’ang district, said she liked her job in a small workroom. It was closer to her house, allowing her parents to pick her up from work and it allowed her to save money.
The environment was “normal,” she said, except in the height of the hot season.
“They don’t have enough electric fans for the workers, and no ventilation machines in the workroom,” she said.
Even if they are favored by some workers, labor activists say the workrooms can be dangerous. Officials estimate there are hundreds of these subcontractors, employing between 300 and 700 workers apiece and paying between $60 and $70 a month.
The unregistered businesses can circumvent labor laws and violate workers rights, experts say.
“They do like this in order to avoid responsibilities for work conditions and the labor law, said Moeun Tola, head of the labor program unit at the Cambodian Legal Education Center.
Countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh or Nepal deal with similar problems, and labor activists in those countries work hard to ensure such businesses register and obey labor laws.
“When they close, it is difficult to find anybody responsible,” he said. “They use this style like a construction style.”
The government needs to do more to audit such workrooms to ensure they meet labor standards and worker rights, he said. The workrooms also lose revenue for the government, by avoiding taxes and by lowering the number of legitimate factories.
The conditions in some workrooms are difficult.
In Prek Thmey village, Sa’ang district, workers go in and out of a small building completely made of corrugated tin. It is impossible to enter if you are not a worker.
Such buildings have no names, and their owners are hard to find. Of 11 such business owners contacted by VOA Khmer recently, none would be interviewed. Some remained hidden in the work rooms, while other refused to talk without giving a specific reason.
Nearby, worker Pan Senphoum said the secrecy was due to the poor conditions faced by employees.
“In fact, they use electric fans too, but once you use the fan more than eight hours, the wind from the fan can turn hot,” he said. “We don’t have a machine to cool the tin, so it is really hot. The walls and the roof are all tin. It is dusty everywhere, and they don’t even have clean water for workers.”
Workers are paid poorly and eat poorly, he said, leading to a decline in overall health. There are no benefits, no overtime wages, no annual bonus and no maternity leave.
Ly Chantha, who is employed by a workroom in Prek Toch village, said workers do not receive enough salary, and not on time.
“When they don’t have shirts for us to sew, they say they will give us salaries, but when they have shirts, they say they will pay us by the number of shirts we can sew in a day,” she said. “They pay us so cheaply, only $0.35 for 12 shirts, even though we want them to increase that by $0.05. They still have not approved that.”
The presence of unregistered workrooms could also damage the work Cambodia has done towards making a name for itself in good labor conditions. This has been sought as a competitive advantage, as Cambodian manufacturing can cost more and labor skills are lower than in competing countries.
Buyers like Levi Straus, Gap, Nike Air and Walt Disney demand respect for labor standards and worker rights. Such buyers can lose confidence in Cambodia if the country does not respect its promises of high standards, Art Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers, told VOA Khmer.
The presence of workrooms can decrease the impact of demonstrations or strikes, he said, because they allow owners to subcontract their work. He would welcome such businesses if they operated legally, he said.
Ken Loo, general secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said his organization does not approve of such workrooms if they are not registered with the ministries of Commerce or Labor.
“We don’t support such practices,” he said. “In fact, during the world economic crisis, currently, they don’t use such subcontract workrooms, because the main factory itself does not have enough orders.”
Um Mean, an undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Labor, told VOA Khmer the workrooms do exist, though some of them are legal, handling overflow from factories that cannot meet their orders.
“Some places are not fit to standards, but they only work through necessary emergencies required by the main factory,” he said.
A Commerce Ministry official said the government has learned of the smaller workrooms, but lacks clear evidence about them.
“We are working on this issue,” the official said. “This is our country’s reputation. What we’ve promised to buyers we must respect.”