Approximately 600 factories in Cambodia produce clothing and shoes for major brands such as H&M, Adidas and C&A. Cambodia's garment industry provides cheap labour that allows for low prices and fast fashion trends around the world. But the people producing the clothing are struggling to for a living. Cambodia's garment industry has been under fire for a number of years. In what is the country's largest informal employment sector, workers are subjected to forced overtime and poor working conditions in factories. Several surveys show that the salaries of the approximately 700,000 workers in the garment industry are often too low to provide for a decent life.
Earlier this year, the minimum wage increased from 56,700 riel ($140) per month to 62,000 riel ($153). But the extra 9 percent makes little difference. Also starting this year, workers have been required to pay a monthly contribution to a national health care plan. Although the health insurance could save workers a lot of money when they need medical care, many of them feel like they've had to give up a substantial part of their salary increase.
"For that insurance I need to pay 14,200 riel ($3.50) per month," Phon Chane, who works in a factory in Phnom Penh, told DW. "And when I went to the market during the weekend, I needed to pay 1,000 riel ($0.25 cents) for vegetables that were costing me 500 riel ($0.12 cents) a week earlier. So for me the increase really doesn't change anything," added Phon.
With every salary increase, many workers are in turn faced with an increase in living costs - rent and electricity prices go up and food and transportation gets more expensive. In the past four years the minimum wage gradually increased from 32,400 riel ($80) in 2013 to 62,000 riel ($153) this year. But with every wage hike, landlords also raise their rent and prices of food and transportation go up. Additionally, the current minimum wage is still far below the 115,000 riel ($285) living wage recommended for Cambodia by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a coalition of unions and labor activists.
Eang Sok Nath often works 12 hour days six times a week. But despite these long working hours and a salary increase early this year, 26-year-old Eang still has trouble making ends meet."In January I earned 93,300 riel ($230), but everything has gotten more expensive," Eang told DW. "The prices of vegetables, meat and fish have all gone up. And just before the salary increase, my landlord raised the rent of my room 20,200 riel ($5.00) per month."
William Conklin, Cambodia director of the Solidarity Center, a US-based worker's rights NGO, told DW that fashion brands are partly to blame for poor wages in factories producing their clothing.
"What we see now is that brands squeeze factories and therefore workers," he said. "If you a pay a low price per piece of clothing, that dribbles down to the workers. Workers are now being seen as disposable. That attitude really needs to change."