Empowering Garment Workers: Capacity Building for the Garment Industry in Cambodia

by Cambodia 11 months ago
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In an industry as complex and problem-prone as Cambodia’s garment sector, could building capacity in problem solving and critical thinking really make a difference to workers’ lives?

Lauren Solomon – a researcher, practitioner and academic who specialises in sustainable fashion – certainly thinks so. After investigating Cambodia’s garment industry and meeting with factory workers in Phnom Penh, she decided to incorporate a practical component into her Doctoral project, which focuses on ethics in the fashion industry. Collaborating with Queensland University of Technology and Cambodia’s largest garment-worker union, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU), she developed a training program aimed at upskilling union representatives and the garment workers they represent.

Lauren’s pilot program was delivered over six days in January 2017; the longest training package in the union’s 20-year history. Her friend and QUT colleague Kiara Bulley was also there to help deliver the training, which focused heavily on group work and visual-based learning. All 25 participants were union reps, coming from 13 different garment factories in and around Phnom Penh and representing up to 30,000 garment workers between them.

The Fashion Revolution Cambodia Team caught up with Lauren and Kiara after the training was complete to learn more about the role of union reps in Cambodia and the potential of skills training to improve the lives of the country’s one million garment workers.


Where did the idea for the training program first come from?

LS: In 2015 I did my Doctoral fieldwork in Cambodia and that’s when I met the FTU general secretary. She was incredibly passionate and really captivated me. She introduced me to garment workers and I started learning about their struggles. We spoke about the lack of education and capacity within the union and ways we could work together. I pitched a training program to her that focused on problem solving, she jumped at the opportunity, and things went from there.

What skills does the program focus on building?

LS: It focuses on a range of things: Communication, research, mind-mapping, problem-based learning and goal setting. My research is about women, so the training is heavily tailored to women’s needs.

KB: In Cambodia, there’s a social pressure for women to leave education early and either enter the workforce or become mothers. Women make up 85-90% of the garment industry workforce, so it was really important that our training concentrated on those basics they may have missed out on. We essentially gave them clear templates for how to work through a problem: ways of thinking that would give them better perspective and help them resolve issues more effectively.

What is the overall objective of the training: empowering participants to leave the garment industry, or empowering them to change the garment industry itself?

LS: Garment workers are invisible within the supply chain and often caught there. They do basic, mundane jobs and don’t have any progression from low-level jobs. We are trying to do something to change those power relationships a little bit, and help women feel confident that they can actually do other things and also solve issues within the industry themselves.

KB: Capacity building is about trying to improve their ability to free themselves, depending on what each individual wants. Perhaps this means there will be an opportunity in the future to grow, to skill-build and to move out of the industry – but our focus is more about working within the industry for now.

How does someone become a trade union rep in Cambodia?

KB: Most union reps come from the factory floor. Many participants told us they fell into their position because they were a natural leader. Perhaps they were the more outspoken one, or the more confident one on the floor. For whatever reason, their colleagues came to them with their problems. In this sense, a lot of reps have natural confidence, passion and self-conviction that is so important to their role.

What are some of the challenges union reps face at work?

LS: The trade union system in Cambodia is incredibly complex. There are over 3000 unions and not a lot of solidarity. Some reps work in isolation. Their factories are scattered. Other than union meetings, people don’t really see each other or work together.

In addition, union reps don’t receive much training. They often have a minimal education to begin with, maybe just primary school level. Literacy is a major barrier that our training program had to work around. When a union rep escalates an issue, they need to have a good understanding of the law and their rights. Unfortunately, many just don’t have that capacity.

What about the garment workers they represent? What are some of the issues going on in Cambodia’s garment factories today?

KB: In an industry that’s so large, it’s easy to hide your flaws. We found that male and female union leaders tend to focus on different issues: Male leaders are much more interested in wage increases, whereas female union leaders are interested in health and safety issues like access to toilets and issues surrounding pregnancy, because they often face those issues themselves.

In the program we presented the participants with the issue of toilet access, a basic issue many workers face. There was one woman in the program who was particularly concerned about pregnancy, and she had obviously advocated for pregnant workers before, or maybe even for herself. She tackled the problem of toilet access from the perspective of a pregnant woman. Other participants were tackling it from a health and hygiene angle. They all experienced the same issue, but approached it from different angles.

When a garment worker approaches their union rep with a problem, how does the issue usually get resolved?

KB: Garment factories have a messy chain of command that involves a lot of internal politics. If a worker has a problem, they might go to their line manager, who then might go to their supervisor above them, who might approach higher management or approach the union. But because there’s a sense that you don’t want to tell your superior that something is wrong, a lot of the time workers go straight to the union, and the union goes straight to the top. There’s often not any attempt to problem solve within the factory. What might be a minor problem can escalate quickly. If an issue gets dismissed at the highest level, many workers and unions think ‘Ok, I don’t know how else to deal with this: Let’s go on strike’.

LS: There’s so much striking in Cambodia, and it can turn bloody and violent very quickly. We wanted to encourage participants to think of other ways to solve problems.

How did you see that approach to problem solving change by the end of the training?

KB: At first, many participants had a subjective and emotional response to problems. We saw that change to a considered, rational response: Looking at the facts and connecting them with the law to give yourself a strong base to negotiate. Participants also found the idea of group work very beneficial, because they could cover for each other’s weaknesses.

LS: Participants told us that before, the problem was fuzzy in their head, but now they could see it more clearly. Striking is the major breaking point, so if they can work around that, it can make a huge difference – not only to the union reps and the garment workers, but to the factories and to the brands as well.

What role would you like to see brands play in training programs like this in the future?

LS: I think unions are the right people to focus on at this moment because they have contact with the workers. They are the people who can create change; they are passionate and they have the widest reach.

But brands also need to come to the table. There is a huge opportunity for brands to engage, and that’s my next step with this project. It’s a difficult conversation to have: As much as they might say they want to help, it doesn’t mean anything to people on the ground unless they actually invest. We did our project on a shoestring budget, so getting brands to recognise the value in basic training is the next step.

KB: If you invest in your workers, you won’t lose out: You’ll have a stronger team, a healthier and happier workforce, less strikes, less workplace injuries, and less people taking leave or retiring due to bad health. You can have more highly skilled workers who are happy to come to work and raise healthy families, which benefits the community as a whole.


Empowering Women in the Cambodian Garment Industry was implemented in partnership with QUT Fashion and FTU, and made possible through crowdfunding and a grant from the Mary and Carl Leonard International Relations Award.

Pictured: Participants at the Empowering Garment Workers graduation ceremony. Photo by Sokummono Khan.

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