Cambodian Garment Workers Would Like You To Think Before Going To H&M

In its latest episode, Vice's Fashion Week Internationale series goes to Cambodia, where the country held its first-ever fashion week in Phnom Penh in November. Host Charlet Duboc and the Vice team go to designer runway shows, parties, boutiques that cater to the elites known as the "Khmer Riche," and meet a makeup artist who's inspired by — who else? — Madonna. But they also take an unusual step: they talk to some of Cambodia's hundreds of thousands of over-worked and under-paid garment workers. What does it mean to hold a fashion week for the wealthiest of the wealthy in a country where so much of the world's cheap clothing is made?


Duboc meets garment workers outside a factory at closing time who say that on $2 a day — the legal minimum wage — they are often unable to meet their basic living expenses. These women and girls talk about not being allowed to take bathroom breaks, and having to spend whole shifts on their feet. Duboc rides a bus home from work with a girl named Srey Thom and other garment workers, and Srey introduces her to her family. Her twin sister also works in a garment factory, and her mother says she does a job that "involves spraying air into pockets," which also exposes her to toxic airborne chemicals. And although the minimum age for factory work is 18, Srey admits she was 14 when she started. ("We were very poor and had many children," says Srey Thom's mother, apologetically.) She says many of her friends were children when they started working, too; the factories look the other way. Together, Srey's, her sister's, and her mother's wages support the eight members of their family. On the bus, some workers cover their faces — unsurprising, given Duboc also interviews a union leader who says she's been beaten by police for organizing a demonstration of 5,000 workers — but others share their stories without much hesitation. "Now it can be shown abroad how hard lives are in Cambodia," says one.

The garment industry is the largest sector of the Cambodian economy, and represents over 80% of the country's exports. It employs over 400,000 people, mostly women and girls. Before 2005, an international agreement governed the trade in textiles and clothing, and a combination of country-by-country quotas and set tariffs allowed for some stability in the global garment industry; Western countries could import only a certain amount of clothing and textiles from China, and a certain amount from Cambodia, and a certain amount from Bangladesh, and so on and so forth. Since the expiration of that agreement, all the developing countries where most clothing is made compete directly with one another to drive down labor costs. Abuses are rife. Most Cambodian garment workers have little job security, thanks to short-term factory contracts. And recently, there have been incidents of mass fainting at factories that produce clothes for chains including H&M. The union leader blames several factors for the faintings: poor factory air circulation, exposure to chemicals in the materials, and the fact that garment workers are so poor they often go hungry. An official report suggested the culprit may be "ghosts." "Remember this when you're battling down Oxford Street to get to H&M and Gap," says Duboc.

All fashion weeks are based on elitism, on hierarchies of who's invited to what and who's not. But it's hard to imagine a fashion week in a country where the economic gulf between those on the inside and those on the outside could be any bigger. Cambodians sew billions of dollars worth of clothing for the export market each year, but the country's pivotal role in the rag trade isn't something Cambodia Fashion Week's organizers seem interested in acknowledging. Srey wears a shirt that reads, "Berlin Fashion Week," but when Duboc asks her if she knows what a "fashion week" is, she says no. And she has no idea there's one going on in Phnom Penh, where designers are showing the country's elite their newest wares. Of course, some of those designers, unlike the Khmer Riche, were hardly raised in privilege themselves — for instance there's Remy Hou, who was born a refugee and still has a scar on his cheek from barbed wire that cut him as he was fleeing with his parents — and to the extent that a niche, high-end clothing market exists in Cambodia, it's probably a good thing that people who are willing to overspend on a dress can support local designers rather than just buying another Louis Vuitton bag. But the local designer whom Duboc meets who's showing off-schedule — a former garment worker turned seamstress named Rina Roat, who started her own line — kind of gets it right when she says why she's not showing as part of the official fashion week: "The people there are...just rich people. It's not for poor people to go." Roat understands that for there to be a Cambodia Fashion Week, some people have to be in and some people have to be out, and she knows which group people like her belong to.

The video isn't perfect — I cringed when I heard Duboc call a group of drag performers and transexual sex workers at a designer's after-party "trannies," twice — but it is an interesting look at of some of the uncomfortable contradictions that we all have to confront, sooner or later, as consumers of fashion.

Fashion Week Internationale: Cambodia [Vice]