By Marwaan Macan-Markar
PHNOM PENH, Mar 25, 2011 (IPS) - Cambodia’s rise out of poverty continues to depend on the nimble fingers of young women like Khiev Chren.
She has spent the last three years in a garment factory on the outskirts of this capital city, churning out clothing for international name brands such as Levis, Dockers and GAP. "This is my first job and I need the money to help my family in the province," the 23-year-old said, barely pausing as her fingers guided the left leg of a white trouser under the needle of her electric sewing machine.
Around her rose a hum from nearly 2,000 sewing machines, behind which sat women stitching garments from jeans to shirts, in a well-lit cavernous hall. "This is a more secure job than working in the rice fields back home," Chren admitted, alluding to the hardship of life in her rural-rice-growing province of Takeo, south of Phnom Penh.
The increasing dependence on women like Chren for this Southeast Asian country’s journey out of poverty was brought home Monday by the World Bank’s ‘East Asia and Pacific Economic Update’. "Garment exports registered a 24 percent growth in 2010 after shrinking 20 percent during the 2009 [global financial] crisis," the international financial institute revealed of the main driver of Cambodia’s fledgling export economy.
"Two of Cambodia’s growth drivers rebounded faster than expected," the Bank added in its assessment of the country’s economy, referring to the garment and footwear sectors. "As a result, some 55,300 new jobs have been created by both industries in 2010, recovering most of the jobs lost during the 2009 economic downturn."
Women in this country of 14 million have benefited from this windfall in new jobs, amplifying the trend in the garment sector from the time it set its roots in the mid-1990s helping Cambodia recover from decades of conflict, genocide and occupation - which ended with the 1991 Paris peace accords - and extreme poverty. Today, the face of the 320,000 workers in the country’s 270 garment factories remains a feminine one.
The garment factories, which serve as a base for this country’s limited industrial sector, are also pivotal as an employment magnet for the bulging youth population. Nearly 35 percent of the population is between 10 and 24 years old, earning this country the distinction of having the biggest youth population in Southeast Asia, according to U.N. estimates.
It is the labour of the female workforce, in fact, that has contributed to over 70 percent of export earnings from garment sales to markets in the United States and Europe. In 2008, before the global financial crisis, exports earned 4.07 billion U.S. dollars, dropping to 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2009 following the crisis - which saw U.S. markets shrink. But by last year, the export market, led by garments, had rebounded, with earning inching close to 4.6 billion U.S. dollars.
And the monthly income of the female labour-force - above 90 U.S. dollars - has been a significant element in helping alleviate poverty in a country still ranked among the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that Cambodia, which has a third of its population living below the poverty line, will fall short of meeting a 2015 global millennium development goal (MDG) of slashing by half the number people who had been living on less than one dollar a day in 1990.
In rural Cambodia, where close to 85 percent of the population live, the number of people living below the poverty line was as high as 43 percent of the population in 1994, but had dropped to 34.79 percent prior to the 2009 financial crisis. It is a drop for which the garment sector earns kudos.
"The garment factories have been an equaliser in alleviating poverty in rural Cambodia," says Tumo Poutiainen, chief technical advisor of Better Factories Cambodia, a special initiative to ensure high labour standards involving the International Labour Organisation (ILO). "Women come to work in the garment factories not just for themselves, but to send money home."
The remittances that the 350,000 garments factory workers sent home prior to the crisis helped two million people in rural areas, ILO estimates reveal, not counting the additional 150,000 jobs the factories spawned on the fringes of Phnom Penh creating a "secondary economy".
Better Factories Cambodia has been hailed by labour rights activists as an answer to sweatshops, a still persistent reality in countries that Cambodia is competing with to produce cheaper garments, such as Bangladesh. Such economic rivalry, which also involves garment factories in Vietnam, has intensified following the end of the multi-fibre agreement, an international quota system for garments, at the beginning of 2005.
Investors from South Korea and Malaysia are leaders in the flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) to this country, much of it helping to bolster the garment and the telecommunications sectors. The garment industry grew at a rate of 44 percent annually between 1997 and 2007, helping the economy hit an impressive 8.2 percent annual average growth rate during that decade.
But rural women in their early 20s who have been drawn to the city to stitch their way out of poverty have also had to pay a price. The freedom, liberty and economic independence they have displayed in their new surroundings have been rebuked by residents of Phnom Penh - including charges of "immorality".
"City residents look down on the garment factory workers. They are being accused of destroying the culture of Cambodian women," says Ly Phearak, coordinator of the Workers’ Information Centre, a non-governmental organisation championing the cause of garment workers. "They expect the women from the village to live according to their traditional and conservative rules, and not feel empowered, more confident." Ignored, as a result, is the life of vulnerability these single women face in a new environment. "These workers need social protection and care to grapple with issues like nutrition, labour rights, and HIV," asserts Chrek Sophea, a former garment factory worker. "Few want to say thank you to these workers for helping Cambodia’s economy improve."