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Author Looks at Forced Labor in Cambodia’s Sex and Garment Industries

File Photo: Cambodian garment factory workers travel together in motor carts to get home from work at the Sala Lek Pram village, Kampong Chhnang province.
File Photo: Cambodian garment factory workers travel together in motor carts to get home from work at the Sala Lek Pram village, Kampong Chhnang province.

Editor’s note: In Cambodia, there are few employment options for women, except in two industries: garment manufacturing and sex work. This can create an “imperative” for many women, who find their way to one sector or the other, says Anne Elizabeth Moore, a journalist, writer and artist. But talking about either can be tricky, she tells VOA Khmer in a recent interview. For one, the assumption that women are “forced” into the sex industry is not entirely accurate. Moore has traveled to Cambodia before, most recently in 2014, and is the author of the book New Girl Law.

VOA: What did you do the last time you were in Cambodia?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: On this trip, I was given a Fulbright to teach at a university and to work with students on media and social media issues. I did not expect to actually be able to spend any time looking at anti-trafficking organizations while I was there. You know, during January and then into February, the political upheaval was so high that many opportunities were closed to me, and also I wasn’t able to teach every day. So I ended up being able to do things that I normally wouldn’t have had time to do, and going to these anti-trafficking NGOs was one of the lucky things that I was able to fit in.

VOA: You wrote an article questioning labor trafficking in Cambodia where a lot of women, some would say, are trapped in harsh conditions as garment workers. How did it feel like for you to investigate this issue?

American artist and writer, Anne Elizabeth Moore. (Photo: Anne E. Moore)
American artist and writer, Anne Elizabeth Moore. (Photo: Anne E. Moore)

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Well, of course, for many, many years, I have covered the garment industry as a reporter. The garment industry, because there are so few employment options for women, creates this sense of an almost economic imperative for women to need to work in the garment industry. But it does not have to be that way. And it’s important for me to sort of remind people as we talk about this, that the reason that the garment industry is so important there is because the government does not necessarily want to expand the opportunity for women into other areas.

So there is a sense of forced labor in the garment industry in the first place. But then of course, what we look at internationally, when we look at forced labor, is in particular we look at sex trafficking and sex slavery. And here in the U.S. we talk a lot about how horrible it is for women and the sex industry in Cambodia, and how they all are trafficked. And all the reports are about quoting Somaly Mam, who of course has since been largely discredited. And many of the organizations that were founded in the wake of her talking about sex trafficking sort of cite that Cambodia is the worst place in the world for women, because if you don’t work in the garment industry, you have to work in the sex industry. And then if you don’t want to do that, and you are probably being trafficked in the first place. That’s pretty all encompassing, and it’s not really how I ended up experiencing the situations.

A group of Cambodian women
A group of Cambodian women

VOA: As a young Cambodian woman, I am sad to see women as young as me or even younger forced or trafficked into the sex industry or trapped in poor conditions, such as garment workers with low pay. I’m wondering how we can break this cycle.

Anne Elizabeth Moore: It is, and I definitely won’t be able to fully answer it for you. I know a couple of things. And one of them is that even though Somaly Mam spent a lot of time talking about how everyone that she worked with in her various foundations was a victim of sex trafficking, when you actually talk to the people that live in her shelters, and/or sought assistance from her, or even people who weren’t involved in Somaly Mam’s organizations at all, but just are involved in anti-trafficking organizations elsewhere, what you discover is actually that most of them are not victims of trafficking. Most of them identified as people who were working either in the sex industry or another industry. And the opportunity provided to them by the anti-trafficking organizations was simply better than their continued labor in that industry.

And so the idea that everyone is being forced to work in the sex industry does not end up being entirely accurate, first of all. So what I discovered when I was in Cambodia last year was that what we talk about as being forced labor in the sex industry is more complicated than that, because in the anti-trafficking organizations, what’s happening is that perhaps women are being offered situations that aren’t working directly in the sexual services industry. But they are not given any options outside of working in the garment industry. And so what we had was a situation where women are being paid less than the minimum wage of garment workers to do the exact same labor as garment workers, often in the situation where they had left the garment industry out of frustration in the first place. So they are being under paid to perform the exact same labor that they had earlier rejected. And that itself is a really big issue around questions of what is and what isn’t forced labor.

VOA: When it comes to questions of who benefits from women’s labor with low pay, such as with garment workers, you say that it’s the garment factories and the brand clients, many of which are in the United States. What can the US government do to break the cycle of forced labor and make sure that these brands are aware of the issue of forced labor in the garment industry?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: Yes, there is low pay in the garment industry and there is low pay in the sex industry, and there is low pay in every possible position that women could hold in Cambodian employment. But this isn’t necessarily exclusively a problem with the clothing brands, many of which are based in the US. And keep in mind that many of them are also based in Europe. So what this is the problem with is the idea that we only allow limited options for women to work in certain sectors in the first place, and that those sectors all happen to be related to the physicality of women’s body. So the sex industry of course is directly related to women’s body and then the garment industry is directly related to the kinds of clothes that people wear, and the kinds of people that might like to make those clothes.

So that could change overnight. The reliance of women’s labor on the sex and garment industry could change overnight if a country like Cambodia were going to open up the kind of employment opportunity for women, and that’s going to work fine. And if there were a wider range of options for women in Cambodian employment that the Cambodian government supported, then the idea of what women’s labor could look like would be totally different.

So these aren’t really consumer issue. There are not things that people can necessarily do to create more brands’ awareness and take responsibility for these things, although that all is really helpful. These are actually policy issues. And so in terms of what the U.S. can do is actually find way of supporting effective poverty elimination policy worldwide, and also specifically find way of supporting women’s employment in Cambodia in particular.

The Cambodian Grrrl and New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia
The Cambodian Grrrl and New Girl Law: Drafting a Future for Cambodia

VOA: In your book, New Girl Law, there are these young Cambodian women who made their voices heard and redefined their future beyond traditional norms as caretakers of family and husband. But there are large numbers of women who are trapped with low pay as laborers. What can women, especially those who are in policy-making positions, do to make differences for women themselves?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: I think you are aware that I hold Cambodian women’s political power in some great esteem. In fact, I generally would place it on a higher echelon than I hold American women’s political power. And so what I would actually start to ask is what Cambodian women can do to teach us what we can do to decrease the problems surrounding the pay gap in the US and some other same lack of representation of women in the US political system.

Because I think that women are agitating in Cambodia around some very, very central issues, and they are very important, and very aware that maintaining an eye toward family, but also this notion of sexual liberation, but also of course under an umbrella of economic freedom, that these things are all very, very important. And I think continuing to push for women to have the right to full employment and to be paid a decent wage for any labor that they are interested in taking on and to eliminate gender-specific hiring or gender-specific education all the way through the educational and career process, I think those things would do a lot to support women’s economic freedom in Cambodia. But I said that being fully aware that those things also need to work on here in the US.

US First Lady Michelle Obama arrived with Cambodian first lady Bun Rany at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong Hight School, around 40 Kilometer outside of Siem Reap town, Saturday, March 21, 2015, to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. (Noeu Vannarin/VOA Khmer)
US First Lady Michelle Obama arrived with Cambodian first lady Bun Rany at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong Hight School, around 40 Kilometer outside of Siem Reap town, Saturday, March 21, 2015, to promote her “Let Girls Learn” initiative. (Noeu Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

VOA: Last month First Lady Michelle Obama visited Cambodia as part of her initiative “Let Girls Learn.” Education is a way to empower women economically and professionally. But for these women who are trapped in poverty and forced labor in the sex and garment industries, how can we bring education to these women to liberate themselves?

Anne Elizabeth Moore: I think the most important thing is to really choose the battle that you are willing to engage in. And I think questions surrounded poverty are far more pressing than questions about morality. So what I would be interested in worldwide is looking at some kinds of policy agenda that says: Ok, let’s forget about what people may or may not choose to do when they want to be paid for their work. But let’s really make sure that they are going to be paid for doing work at all, and that would be an effective poverty-elimination strategy.

But it may also mean we end up supporting the right for women to work in the sex industry if they want to. I think that what we need to do right now is really focus on getting people out of the system of economic oppression that they live under, before we can talk about making sure that everyone has other sort of amenity that they might need to maintain health and happiness. I think poverty is one of the most pressing global issues worldwide, particularly for women in Cambodia.

And so I think what happens when the US gets involved in policy agendas is that we tend to conflate questions on economic opportunity and morality. And we say: “Well, women don’t want to work in the sex industry, obviously.” But in fact women do enjoy working in the sex industry, and yes, there are occasional moments where it isn’t necessarily the best opportunity, but it’s only the best pay opportunity. But there are also opportunities where women may just prefer to do that kind of employment if they want to if they have access to all kinds of employment. So what I would say is that we open up the kind of employment opportunity that women might have worldwide, and then we can start to think about giving people other options for escaping the kind of job that they ended up trapped in in the first place.