Harnessing the Internet to Realise Labour Rights in Cambodia: Interview with Alexandra Demetrianova

Image Source: World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr, under CC License Generic 2.0. Title: Cambodia’s Garment Industry



Do internet campaigns work? This is what Alexandra Demetrianova reflects upon in her research for GISWatch about labour rights violations in garment factories of Cambodia. In this interview, she discusses how the internet has played a key role in the struggles of garment factory workers (mostly female) and trade unionists to demand for an increase in their minimum wage. She also speaks about the internet’s potential in humanising the garment industry and changing consumer consciousness across the world. Some things cost more than we realise, and here is how her research brings this to light.



Radhika Radhakrishnan: Though Cambodia has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), what are the reasons for the country still facing widespread labour rights challenges, especially for garment workers?



Alexandra Demetrianova: The garment industry is very important for the Cambodian economy; as a 5 billion dollar industry, it contributes significantly to the GDP of the country. Laws do exist on paper in the domains of economic, cultural, and social rights, and particularly women’s rights. But it is a feature of the garment industry globally that it prefers cheap workforce, low labour rights protection, and lack of transparency. Therefore, the primary motivation behind violation of labour laws in the garment industry anywhere in the world is the poor enforcement of policies on the domestic level and in the context of Cambodia, particularly in the case of special economic zones, where many of the garment factories and workers function. Therefore, for a country so dependent on exports like Cambodia, and with such a large garment sector, labour rights challenges remain because of the way the government sees it – if they clamp down on such violations, these factories might eventually move to countries with less labour rights requirements or lower wages like Myanmar.



With most of the 600,000 workers in the garment industry being women, labour rights issues are also gender specific. In Cambodian society and mainly rural areas, women’s roles are viewed traditionally and there exists a dilemma between the traditional roles of women and the modern emancipated women who are a key part of the workforce. Due to gender stereotypes in politics and society, women’s demands are not taken as seriously as those of men and there are various gender-specific ways of violating labour rights. Employers often specifically discriminate women at the workplace in the form of sexual harassment, blackmail, and short-term contracts for newly married women to avoid paying health / pregnancy benefits.

Due to gender stereotypes in politics and society, women’s demands are not taken as seriously as those of men and there are various gender-specific ways of violating labour rights. Employers often specifically discriminate women at the workplace in the form of sexual harassment, blackmail, and short-term contracts for newly married women to avoid paying health / pregnancy benefits.


RR: So these challenges seem to have a strong gendered dimension to them, and disproportionately affect women. Are there other social contexts that run in common among these garment workers? In terms of their age, school, community, or culture.

AD: Yes, they are mostly young women, aged anywhere between 15 to 35, but not older. Young girls often lie about their age to get a job in urban garment factories because it is better paid than anything else where they come from around rice fields. That, of course, constitutes child labour, which big brands are not often aware of, because they subcontract most of their garments to other factories. The majority of Cambodia’s garment workers hail from the countryside or are urban poor; you would not find a middle class Cambodian working in a garment factory. Young girls leave their homes in rural areas with high hopes of working in factories with at least the minimum wage. They are the bread winners for their families and send most of their money home to the countryside to support them. So, although these women have jobs in garment factories and earn more to support poor farmer families in rural areas, they themselves do not earn enough – living wage – and mostly become the new wave of urban poor.

These women have jobs in garment factories and earn more to support poor farmer families in rural areas, they themselves do not earn enough – living wage – and mostly become the new wave of urban poor.


RR: That’s interesting because I am trying to understand if these garment workers have the ability to access the internet in an easy and uncensored manner. If you come from an educational background where you are not taught how to use technology, or you come from a financial standing where you cannot afford internet access, then I imagine the benefits that you can accrue through the internet will be accordingly limited?

AD: Though majority of Cambodians do not use the internet, its mobile phone and smartphone industry is booming, with companies competing against each other to provide cheap internet access. Thanks to mobile providers, as of 2015, a third of Cambodians have been online. Garment workers are usually well connected through mobile phones so as to communicate with their families in the countryside, among their friends and co-workers. But more importantly, workers in the garment industry are well organised in trade unions which are in turn connected to larger international unions and campaigners for labour rights. So online connections and new technologies all help the struggle of garment factory workers in Cambodia for labour rights and higher wages. Practically speaking, it is not necessary for every worker in a factory or union to be connected to the internet. But the mere fact that workers are organised leads to connectivity actions like citizen journalism and campaigns locally and via international partners globally.



RR: That seems like the workers’ social contexts inform their ability to use technology to transcend their struggles. And it looks like we are descending into an era of campaigning through technology. So what specific metrics are used to measure success of internet-based campaigns?



AD: This is actually an interesting dilemma I struggled with during my research because I wanted to find a pattern to use as a metric. When I spoke to Labour Behind the Label about the Clean Clothes Campaign or to CENTRAL Cambodia about legal representation for garment workers, I learned that they have certain ways of measuring impact of their own campaigns, but there doesn’t seem to be a universal standard.



So, in the context of garment industry in Cambodia, one way to measure success of campaigns is to look at the campaign’s duration against the rise of minimum wage, and compare the outcome to the goal of the campaign. Has it changed the living wage struggle, has it met the workers’ demands? Cambodian workers have been demanding a higher minimum wage in the garment industry for years, and there have been several regional and international campaigns to support them. And gradually the minimum wage has been going up – since 2011 it has more than doubled from USD 61 to the already promised USD 153 per month as of January 2017.



Social media played a major part in that, linking the campaign to the consumers in the West and further pressuring big brands. Though the extent of the internet’s role in a campaign’s success is difficult to measure, we should assume that it is large given that in Cambodia, internet is among the most unregulated media to channel expressions without being censored. Nevertheless, experts on this matter suggest that success in the minimum wage struggle is equally owing to the negotiations, work of local trade unions, international partners and the overall connectivity of the labour rights network domestically, and globally.

Social media played a major part in that, linking the campaign to the consumers in the West and further pressuring big brands..


RR: Speaking of censorship of media, Freedom House has ranked Cambodia in its annual ratings as “Not Free”, but freedom of the internet has ranked better as “Partly Free”. Therefore, there must be some broad ways the internet has provided freedom and empowerment for Cambodian women that its government has not been able to.

AD: For now, in Cambodia, there is no central censorship of the internet. But there are other methods of post-online repression (such as politically motivated trials and court cases of defamation, national security threat, etc.) and these can pose a threat to trade unions and women workers struggling for labour rights. So even if the internet is not regulated and censored for now, there are a series of other laws that the government can use against workers and trade unionists. Garment trade unions mostly use social media and technology to collect evidence in the form of footage from inside garment factories (if permissible), or of violence towards striking workers by security forces to share with the world the extent of abuse of their rights. But you still need someone taking forward the social media campaign to actors who can pressure the Cambodian government and big brands such as human rights organisations, and international actors. In effect, the change is always a collective outcome, especially in such an important sector like garment industry in Cambodia.

Garment trade unions mostly use social media and technology to collect evidence in the form of footage from inside garment factories (if permissible), or of violence towards striking workers by security forces to share with the world the extent of abuse of their rights.


RR: So what you’re saying is that it’s not enough to stop at internet-based campaigns and these campaigns need to help exert pressure from other countries to take action. But what happens after that? Does such pressure from other countries using the internet actually change realities back home?



AD: In the research of this topic for the GISWatch report, Anna McMullen from Labour Behind the Label mentioned an interesting feature and link between traditional media and internet in Cambodia. Cambodian local media picks up news from social media; when news of garment worker protests reaches Facebook, local media houses pick up the story and write about it. So there is a direct linking tool for citizen journalists to channel their struggles and the violations to the national press, which can then generate more buzz about the topic and contribute to pressure on the Cambodian government domestically and internationally. A good example of what happens after a successful campaign is the ‘Free the 23’ campaign, that was backed up by international partners like the Clean Clothes campaign. This international support network (for the release of 23 trade unionists arrested for striking) coordinated civil resistance in front of head offices of violating factories in Cambodia. That pressure pushed a coalition of brands like H&M, Adidas, Levi’s and others to discuss the release of the 23 arrested garment factory workers and unionists with the Cambodian government. After Levi’s called off USD 50 million worth of garment orders from Cambodian suppliers, and communicated that move to the Ministry of Finance, the 23 were released a few days later. And the buzz this created on social media attention also led to consumers from around the world, mainly the West, beginning to gradually rethink their buying choices.



RR: This brings to light another problem with the garment industry – that most consumers do not know who makes their clothes or how difficult it is for them. So would it be safe to say that the internet has helped in humanising the garment industry in Cambodia?



AD: Yes, absolutely. The internet is the single most powerful tool for a society to function as the global village that we really are. Products that are manufactured in Cambodia or Bangladesh end up in stores halfway across the world. So for any kind of successful campaign targeting labour laws, we need to target the consumers because people generally don’t know where their products come from. One goes into their favourite brand’s shop and buys their products without giving any second thought to how it was made. For that we need to give the products and clothes faces and stories of people behind them. Internet and social media are very crucial tools to achieve this, because you can tell stories and share images in seconds or minutes and bring something so distant and afar much closer to people’s daily consumer choices.

Products that are manufactured in Cambodia or Bangladesh end up in stores halfway across the world. One goes into their favourite brand’s shop and buys their products without giving any second thought to how it was made. Internet and social media are very crucial tools because you can tell stories and share images in seconds or minutes and bring something so distant and afar much closer to people’s daily consumer choices.


I personally recognise and feel a slow change in the way people think and aspire for more consumer consciousness. So if we channel enough information to consumers about their products, they may rethink their choices for better and more sustainable ones. In the end, consumers are people and we have to assume that nobody wants others to suffer and we all aspire to be good, compassionate people. I also wish feminist movements would pick up on this imbalance of justice between women in the West and women in the non-industrialised world. Perhaps we should think in terms of: what we buy has been made by a woman, who maybe doesn’t have a decent wage or safe working environment. So maybe this gender perspective to injustice and imbalance between Global North and Global South could be emphasised more in campaigns. One way of doing this as an individual and consumer is to recognise, support and buy from brands that treat their (female) workers with dignity and respect and provide them with a living wage.

RR: That is a very interesting perspective, Alexandra. Though often, the fulfilment of these Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights depends on the resources a State has at its disposal. So going forward, what are some specific action steps that the Cambodian government can take to realise these rights in its present capacity?



AD: Cambodian economy is among the fastest growing economies in South-East Asia. What is an issue, is the distribution of resources in Cambodia and its state priorities. If women’s rights or labour rights were a priority, given the rapidly growing economy of the country, I’m sure Cambodian government could find enough resources to launch projects for improving labour conditions with a gender perspective in mind. Cambodia is also heavily dependent on aid, so there is an array of aid donors working on human rights that the government could rope in to pay for such projects. The government could also look at working with the private sector to improve transparency and provide safe and humane working conditions in the garment factories. So there are many areas where the government can do a better job. Without much political criticism, one reason the CPP led state doesn’t, is to maintain a balance between the apparel industry status quo and to keep the factories and brands from relocating out of Cambodia; and at the same time improve conditions to appease workers and prevent them from going on strikes, which in the long-term disrupts garment production and exports.



RR: Alexandra, what is your overall feeling about how the road ahead looks like for Cambodian garment workers? Would you say you are hopeful or apprehensive about it?



AD: I definitely feel positive about the gradual rise of the minimum wage, but minimum wage and decent living wage are very different sums, and garment worker demands for the latter have not yet been fulfilled. In the long-term perspective, I fear that if minimum wage keeps rising, factories might start shifting out of Cambodia to cheaper workforce markets like Myanmar.

The last two laws that have been passed in Cambodia – Civil Society and NGO Law, and Trade Union Law – have been widely condemned domestically and internationally because of lack of freedoms for civil society and workers to organise. Also the upcoming Cyber Security Law closes the trio of laws which together form a much harder iron fist over critique of the government.


What is a serious concern for those lobbying for labour rights in the garment industry is how the Cambodian government legislates around civil society. The last two laws that have been passed – Civil Society and NGO Law, and Trade Union Law – have been widely condemned domestically and internationally because of lack of freedoms for civil society and workers to organise. Also the upcoming Cyber Security Law closes the trio of laws which together form a much harder iron fist over critique of the government. Once the internet becomes more controlled by the government, this may result in less freedom of online association for apparel workers and unions. But I am hopeful that the civil society in Cambodia will find alternative ways because they have their networks with international partners, and know how to communicate and use social media very well and effectively.

In Cambodia, the garment sector is an example to all other sectors as to how you can stand up for your rights as workers and that the struggle has to be persistent to achieve results. Part of my optimism is the faith in the change of consciousness of consumers globally.

We need to develop an individual as well as collective responsibility and remember that everything we consume has come from somewhere, that somebody has made it, and it has consequences, whether social, economic, or environmental. So I believe that the changes in Cambodia’s garment industry are part of a much bigger global change for sustainability that is currently happening, and I am hopeful of positive changes to come.


RR: Thank you for your time and valuable insights, Alexandra, it has been wonderful speaking with you.

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