Living Wage – Sokoin’s Story3 weeks ago
October 2016, Phnom Penh
At the age of 24, Sokoin is already a veteran in her field. She has been employed at footwear and garment factories since she was 16, the legal working age in Cambodia.
Sokoin is bright, engaged, and takes an active interest in her rights at work. She keeps tabs on the high-profile wage negotiations that happen every year, getting information through Facebook and radio broadcasts and sharing it with her colleagues. She folds her monthly payslips into neat little squares and keeps them on her at all times, ready to pull out and compare with her friends who work at different factories in Phnom Penh. She knows her way around a payslip. As part of her training at the factory, she was taught how to read a statement and double-check the calculations.
Last month, Sokoin earned 186 USD. The current minimum wage isn’t enough to cover her expenses, so she must work overtime to meet her financial obligations. She spends 50 USD on rent and utilities for the tiny apartment she shares with her sister. Being the youngest daughter in a family of nine, Sokoin has a responsibility to send a significant portion of her wages – about 100 USD per month – back home to her parents. This leaves just 36 USD leftover to buy food from the nearby market. Sokoin makes sacrifices to her personal spending so that she can put a tiny amount away each month into savings. A wage increase would lessen Sokoin’s burden and allow her to pursue an education.
Many of Cambodia’s 700,000-plus garment workers feel trapped inside the industry, and with little room to advance their careers and few transferrable skills, many indeed are. But not Sokoin. She followed her sister to Phnom Penh from their village in Kampong Cham province (about 130km away) not just for the money a factory job promises, but to begin a personal journey. For her, Cambodia’s capital is a hub of ideas and opportunities. Sokoin likes living in a modern city. She likes the independence. Being a garment worker was never Sokoin’s aspiration; she has always seen it as a stepping stone to something else. Her ultimate goal is to become a journalist.
“I don’t want to be a garment worker for the rest of my life.”
January 2017, Phnom Penh –
The next time I see Sokoin, three months on, she’s busy at her new laptop, teaching herself to use the keyboard by retyping articles from an English-language newspaper. Sokoin has done what many garment workers in Cambodia can only dream of: she quit her job and started studying. She is the first from her family to attend university, and this is her first time using a computer.
Sokoin is taking a course in social work. She is still passionate about journalism, but now she’s more focused on advocating for vulnerable groups, including garment workers. She used her small amount of savings to cover the first semester’s tuition, which cost 300 USD. She receives a small stipend from the university, 30 USD per month, to support her living costs. In return, she helps with lesson planning and cleans the classroom. It’s barely enough to live off, and with no more savings left from her eight-year career as a factory worker, Sokoin isn’t sure how she’s going to pay next semester’s fees.
But she’s happy to be studying and on the path to a new life. Her passion for education is apparently infectious: one of her friends, a union rep, has recently enrolled in law school, and another friend, also a former garment worker, is now applying for military school.
Sokoin volunteers at the Worker’s Information Center, an outreach service for garment workers, which allows her to stay informed about wage negotiations. She worries about the friends she left behind in the factory, that they will be discouraged from speaking up now that she – the vocal one, the fearless one – is gone. She wonders about her boss, if he made any salary cuts this month. She misses the small things about her old job, like the routine of greeting her colleagues and taking attendance each morning. Whenever she walks past the factory, she wants to go inside and say hello.
Sokoin is lucky that her family are supportive of her decision to study. Her old boss at the garment factory has been similarly encouraging, although her supervisor tried to persuade her to stay. Sometimes Sokoin thinks of going back to the factory; but for now, her focus is firmly on her education.
For more information about Sokoin’s life, please contact Claudio Montesano Casillas.