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Freedom from the Factory: A New Start for Garment Workers in Cambodia

After years working in a Phnom Penh garment factory, where she made little money and had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, Hab Saly returned home to start her own sewing workshop and help other women escape the lonely, grinding life of a factory worker.

Written by Jodi Hilton Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Garment workers sewing3
After six years working in a garment factory, Hap Saly, right, decided to return home and start her own sewing workshop, which now employs 13 women and sells its products in the U.S.Jodi Hilton

For six years, six days a week, 12 hours a day, Hab Saly worked in a garment factory in Phnom Penh, sewing seams and attaching buttons to pieces of clothing. She was one of the approximately 700,000 garment workers, most of them women from rural villages, working in Cambodia’s textile plants. Like many of those women, she had left her family behind to share a small rented room with other workers close to the factory.

Return visits to her home in the village of Tramung Chrum were expensive and infrequent. The village is a 40-minute moped ride on dirt roads to the main highway and another hour and a half to the city. The village has no electricity or running water, so villagers rely on solar panels to power lights and charge cellphones, and collect drinking water from an open well in a rice field. There are few available jobs, so the income Saly made from factory work was vital for covering basic expenses like food and school fees.

Leb Yum, who works with Saly, and Saly’s niece Ly collect drinking water from an open well in a rice field in the village of Tramung Chrum, Cambodia. (Jodi Hilton)

At the garment factory, Saly says she and other women worked all day, enduring oppressive heat and mind-numbing monotony. If they needed to use the toilet, they would have to get permission from the manager, and only one worker could go at a time. Sometimes they were not allowed, as it disrupted productivity. Women often quit when they became pregnant – garment companies often don’t provide maternity leave or childcare. (In the run-up to the general election in July, Prime Minister Hun Sen has been trying to woo the garment worker vote with talk of “baby bonuses” and greater job security.) The most money Saly ever made was $80 per month, but she spent half of that on rent, food and transportation.

All over Cambodia, garment workers endure similar mistreatment and exploitation. A 2016 report by the Center for Alliance of Labor & Human Rights, a Cambodian NGO, on the alleged violation of workers’ rights at suppliers for H&M mentions insufficient wages, excessive temperatures in the factories and insufficient access to toilets among the issues that garment workers face.

Women go to work at the garment factories in Srey Prey, another village in the Kampong Chnnang region. Garment workers are often transported to factories in open trucks. (Jodi Hilton)

Then one day while she was home for a visit, Saly had a lunch that would free her from factory work and start her on a path to her own business. Elyse Lightman, an American woman who was in the village working on her college thesis, gathered a group of local women and asked them about their future plans and goals.

“I raised my hand and said I wanted to learn how to sew, because I wanted to return to my village and open a workshop,” Saly says. Elyse said she and her father Alan, who runs the Harpswell Foundation, which supports education for women in Phnom Penh, would help with the funding.

Saly quit her job at the factory, returned to her village and enrolled in a sewing course. Then, in a small shed on her family’s property, she started a sewing business using her new skills, a treadle (foot-powered) sewing machine and a coal-fired iron.

“I trained other women in my village, and we started to make clothes,” Saly says.

Business was slow until 2011, when Saly teamed up with Marie Eckstein, the former vice president for Dow Corning, who had come to Cambodia looking for a post-retirement humanitarian project, and turned her focus from beaded dresses to bags and scarves. A year later, she, Eckstein and Eckstein’s friend Lin Alessio, a former educator who now owns a Michigan farm, together formed Red Dirt Road and began marketing their products in the United States.

Saly uses a technique the women call “doodling” to make the decorative piece for the front of a silk phone purse. (Jodi Hilton)

Now the organization employs 13 women in a small shop on the main street of Tramung Chrum village. Passersby can see the women at work and hear the machines hum and the women chatter.

On a recent morning, a few of the women gathered in their workshop to produce a cellphone-sized bag made of silk. One cuts the fabric while another presses the pieces with a coal-fired iron. Saly is at the sewing machine, creating a wiggly pattern like sun rays, which they call “doodling.” Then another woman expertly sews the pieces of fabric together.

Hab Sarath, a seamstress with Red Dirt Road, prepares to breastfeed her son. Her mother-in-law cares for the child while Sarath works and brings him to the workshop when he needs to feed. (Jodi Hilton)

Four of the women working for Red Dirt Road gave birth last year, but three have already returned to work. They no longer have to spend months away from their families to earn a living. During the workday – which lasts from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break – grandmothers stop by with the women’s infants for breast-feeding. The women are paid according to the hours they work and they handle management issues among themselves, taking family or maternity leave as needed. No one has to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Last year, proceeds from their sales were just under $70,000. After salaries and expenses were paid, $2,000 of profit went back to the community. The group used the money to buy seeds for kitchen gardens, build latrines and pay for English classes for local children.

Any profit the women at Red Dirt Road make goes back into the community. Ly Mom, a farmer and mother of five, makes and sells soaps from her home in Tramung Chrum village, with support from the sewing workshop. (Jodi Hilton)

A few years ago, as the group was growing, Sos Tey joined the team as their country manager in charge of purchasing materials, managing orders and shipments. Tey, who grew up in a nearby village before going on to study finance and banking in Phnom Penh, makes weekly visits to the workshop.

“All [the women] say everything in their lives has changed,” Tey says. “Even though their pay is about the same as when they worked in factories, their expenses are lower. Now they live in their comfort zone.”

Hab Sarath makes the straps for a silk phone purse. The women have plans to expand the business and eventually employ up to 50 seamstresses in a new workshop, with an onsite daycare center, a rarity in Cambodia. (Jodi Hilton)

And they have plans to expand. Saly’s father, who is also a community leader, has agreed to give part of his farmland for a bigger workshop.

“The business is growing now. We have more orders than before, and the women’s wages are increasing and they are seeing the benefits,” Saly says. Red Dirt Road plans to eventually employ up to 50 seamstresses in a new workshop, with an onsite daycare center, a rarity in Cambodia.

“Now I can support my family without leaving my hometown,” Saly says. “I want the business to grow bigger and become a model for other villages.”

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