Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality


Year: 2014

Type: spoof catwalk show

Performers: garment factory workers

Sponsors: Workers’ Information Centre & United Sisterhood Alliance, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Availability: films free online on YouTube (2 minutes 31 seconds, Heather Stilwell - embdded below & 5 minutes 14 seconds, Chenla Media - here)

Translation: this page is also available in Finnish, here.

Page Reference: Weston Goodman, C. (2018) Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality. ( last accessed <insert date here>)



While the clothes they make are beautiful, the reality is just too ugly to accept (Source: Aaron nd np link).

The message couldn’t be clearer - fast fashion comes at a heavy cost to those on the factory floor (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

Cambodian garment workers, caught in a struggle against government forces and vested outside interests, have found a new way to voice their demands for fair pay and decent working conditions. Last month, they staged a fashion show with a difference (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

On June 1, 2014, six months after a garment workers’ protest in Phnom Penh ended in smoke and blood when police shot into the crowd, 150 Cambodian garment workers staged a fashion show. They advertised on wall posters around the city. Over pictures of the latest fashions, jagged words splashed: ‘Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality’ (Source: Orleck 2018, 121 link).

The occasion? A one-of-a-kind fashion show in which garment workers from Cambodia’s booming textile industry modelled the very clothing they toiled in airless factories for $3 a day to produce (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

The show … was a mix of fashion, performance art and dance (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

[To p]umping music [and] flashing lights, exquisitely made-up women in killer heels strut[ed] down the catwalk (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

… the women donning these clothes were not your usual 6 foot-tall, waif-like models (Source: Anon 2014b np link).

… these weren’t models donning the latest haute couture, but workers from some of Phnom Penh’s 330 export garment factories in the clothes they produce for global high-street brands (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

Dressed to the nines, … [they] display[ed] branded clothing from companies like adidas and Nike (Source: Kasztelan 2014 np link).

[They] presented a range of colourful clothing that had no unifying theme other than having been produced in a Cambodian garment factory. Items spanned from unbranded plain black dresses to jacket tops and T-shirts displaying the ‘Puma’ and ‘Adidas’ logos (Source: Dara and Willemyns 2014 np link).

[They] walk[ed] the runway in flirty H&M dresses, sporty Adidas tee-shirts and sleek slim-cut GAP jeans (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

The twist? ... one clear message: stop the violence, stop the exploitation, and pay a humane living wage (Source: Aaron nd np link).

The show … included a reenactment of the January police violence that led to the deaths of five garment workers. Workers in riot gear costumes faced off against workers wearing headbands from the campaign (Source: Anon 2014a np link).

They also threaded the catwalk on songs by ‘The Messenger ... [Band]’, a vocal group of former garment workers [see our page on The Messenger Band here], while carrying signs saying ‘We need rice, not bullets’, ‘Drop the ban on public gathering now’ or ‘We need a decent condition and dignity’ (Source: Vink 2014 np link).

… to highlight ‘the income gap between Cambodian garment workers and the selected CEOs of brand companies,’ … the two-hour program featured a medley of cat-walking, political theatre and speeches calling for a $160 monthly basic wage (Source: Dara and Willemyns 2014 np link).

… they aim[ed] to hold brand leaders accountable for the current deadlock in their struggle to increase wages and improve workplace conditions (Source: Anon 2014g np link).

About 150 garment workers turned out to the Phnom Penh offices of the United Sisterhood Alliance NGO … to watch [the] politically charged fashion show (Source: Dara and Willemyns 2014 np link).

The show opened with a piece called ‘Crackdown Hip-Hop’. Four young make dancers performed a Cambodian version of an African American street dance known as ‘krumping’. Crack. The sound of gunshots filled the air. The stage darkened, then relit. Music throbbed. Women workers strutted defiantly to the Swedish hit ‘I Love It’. The workers-turned-models posed in the dresses they spend their lives sewing. Logos for Old Navy, H&M, Nike, Levi’s and other companies were projected onto their faces and bodies. Each carries a two-foot-long hundred dollar bill (Source: Orleck 2018, 122 link).

Realising that if they are silenced by fear and don't take action, there is no possibility of change for in their lives, [they] … confidently took to the catwalk carrying giant US$100 notes which they then tore up (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

Torn pieces floated into boxes labelled Rent, Electricity, Water, Medical Care, Food.  At the final box, the women held up empty hands. Cambodian workers live on as little as 150 calories a day, says union leader Roth Minea. ‘Feeding themselves is the one expense they can cut,’ he said, ‘and they do, day after day’ (Source: Orleck 2018, 122 link).

… [because] they are not paid enough to survive (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

The show changed scenes fast. Women rushed onstage, wearing red head scarves, white T-shirts and jeans. Their signs decried the injustices they’d endured. ‘Job Insecurity.’ ‘Poor Ventilation.’ ‘Sexual Harassment.’ ‘Pregnancy Discrimination’ (Source: Orleck 2018, 122-3 link).

[They] held up placards describing their working conditions in English and Khmer: ‘Tiny unhygienic rented rooms’; ‘Unsafe environment’; ‘Forced overtime’ and ‘No access to higher education’. Later they swapped these for placards with demands: ‘Drop ban on public gatherings’; ‘Stop short-term contracts and exploitation of workers’ and ‘Rice not bullets’ (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

More women ran out, circling anxiously. Their headbands said only ‘$160.’ Garment workers had died six months earlier wearing the same: a simple statement of the monthly minimum wage they were demanding. Then came men carrying toy guns (Source: Orleck 2018, 122-3 link).

…  dressed in makeshift ‘Joe Fresh’ riot gear … [they] re-enact[ed] January’s violent crackdown and death of a worker on stage (Source: Stilwell 2014a np link).

The music stopped. The women turned to face the men. They raised their fists. Red and white lights flashed. Gunfire sounded and workers fell to the ground. The room went dark (Source: Orleck 2018, 122-3 link).

One woman fell to the ground and a young boy sat next to her, screaming (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

When the lights came back on, women workers stood beside the podium wearing orange or pink T-shirts that said in Khmer and English ‘People Before Profit’. They laid on the ground hand-lettered signs with their demands: ‘Dignity.’ ‘Safer Conditions.’ ‘A Living Wage’ (Source: Orleck 2018, 122-3 link).

Then it was over. The women changed their clothes, piled two, three and four onto motorcycles, scooters and bicycles, and rode back to tiny rooms they share near the factory districts. That night, as they do every night, they cooked in the open-air pathways between their cramped lodgings. They talked excitedly about their show and went to bed early. Everyone had work the next morning (Source: Orleck 2018, 122-3 link).

Inspiration / Technique / Process / Methodology

Garment manufacturing is Cambodia’s main foreign exchange earner, with $5.5 billion in exports last year, mainly to the United States and the European Union (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

Cambodia’s garment industry employs about 700,000 people … Factories in the country produce clothes and shoes for brands including Gap, Nike, Adidas and Zara. The textiles industry is a key source of national income. However, rights groups have criticised conditions in some of the factories with reports of forced overtime and mass fainting (Source: BBC 2015 np link).

Workers from the textile industry continue to contribute so much to Cambodia’s economic growth and to the tremendous profits of the employers and brand corporations. For example, garment and textile exports to the US and EU accounted for 11.3 percent – $2.3 billion – of GDP last year (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

The garment industry accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia's total exports and is the lifeline of the country's economy. But the factory workers' wages don't reflect this high demand and their working conditions are truly horrid (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

In recent years, WIC [Workers’ Information Center] has been heavily involved in a campaign to secure a living wage for garment factory workers. WIC and fellow advocacy groups have called on the government, factory owners and brand name companies to increase the minimum wage for factory workers to $160 a month - a relatively small expense for a $5.7 billion industry (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

Garment workers, who are mostly young women, receive less than US$100 per month for their work. They also face discrimination, harassment, forced overtime and other unfair working conditions (Source: Anon 2014a np link).

Such abysmal wages leave them no choice but to rent tiny rooms, often shared with 10-15 others. Access to water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare, or education for their children is limited. Transport links to the factories are poor, especially late at night. Returning home on foot after dark along poorly lit streets means they often face violence and harassment (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

… the lives of Phnom Penh’s women garment workers are a far cry from the glamour of the catwalk or the image of a ‘cool, carefree lifestyle’ the big brands seek to convey. Mostly young migrants from poor rural areas, these women struggle to cover their basic living costs on the current $100 (£59.65) monthly minimum wage, forcing them to work excessive overtime up to six days a week (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

Last year, workers fed up with having to work ever-longer hours just to get by clocked nearly 900,000 strike days, mostly in an effort to raise the minimum wage (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

In late December 2013, WIC members and fellow campaigners staged strikes and peaceful protests that coincided with a swell of demonstrations contesting the results of the 2013 elections. Tensions ran high as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to raise their various grievances with the government (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

Often when workers in Cambodia try to make change through protests or demonstrations, they're met with violence (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

In January [2014], the Cambodian government issued a brutal crackdown garment workers’ right to protest (Source: Aaron nd np link).

A garment workers' strike for a minimum wage of $160 a month was violently suppressed ... Four workers were shot dead. Just two days before the shootings, the government raised the minimum wage for textile and garment workers from $85 to $100 a month still not enough to live on (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

On January 2 and 3, 2014, the situation boiled over and police shot AK-47 and handgun rounds into crowds of unarmed protestors, killing at least five and injuring dozens more. The government subsequently banned all protests and demonstrations, even peaceful ones (Source: Ziv 2015 np link)

Military police spokesman Kheng Tito told AFP that the police cracked down on protesters after nine policemen were injured in the clashes. ‘We were afraid about the security so we had to crack down on them ... If we allow them to continue the strike it will become anarchy,’ he said (Source: Anon 2014d np link).

Twenty-three protesters accused of inciting violence during the riots are embroiled in an ongoing legal battle (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

It was a brutal response to what, by the standards of a country that buys the products of those garment worker’s labor, is a relatively paltry request: An increase in the minimum wage to $160 monthly (Source: Matthews 2014 np link).

The killings made international headlines and proved a public relations problem for brands such as H&M, The Gap, Puma and Walmart (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

Since that time, we’ve heard a lot through the media about the daily exploitation and violence faced by these workers, most of them women (Source: Aaron nd np link).

Much of the coverage in the months since has focused solely on the actions of the police, without taking a moment to recognize the garment workers who led the protests (Source: Matthews 2014 np link).

A ban on public gatherings was enforced following the event (Source: Anon 2014c np link).

Months after killing five garment workers and wounding forty, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party had not lifted its ban on demonstrations. Before the crackdown, workers had been protesting by the hundreds of thousands for a living wage. But to do so now would be very dangerous (Source: Orleck 2018, 121 link).

It is almost impossible for social and political activists to gather in public spaces, including Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, a public venue where civil society should be able to express its problems and seek solutions. Currently, this part is surrounded with barbed wire, and people have no access to it. Some people call it ‘Prison Park’. The government also bans gatherings of more than 10 people in public venues, claiming that this is to maintain public order and security (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

So, if ‘Freedom Park’ is still closed down and not allowing protests, what other choice do you have to express your outrage? Throw a fashion show, of course (Source: Mackevili 2014 np link)!

Performances did not require a permit. Police watched but did not intervene (Source: Orleck 2018, 121 link).

A few of the organisers actually missed the majority of the show, as they were outside negotiating with police to allow the event to continue. Thankfully it was allowed to go on, as many of the workers had given up a few of their evenings to rehearse – coming to the venue straight from their shift at the factory and sleeping there overnight (Source: Stilwell 2014b np link).

[Organisers] wanted a new way to draw attention to the workers’ struggle; something different where workers could express for themselves what was really going on (Source: Stilwell 2014a np link).

… a group from the United Sisterhood Alliance decided it was time to show the world not just the injustices and abuse, but how they’re coping with the pressure on a daily basis (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

[This] was seen as a new, creative way of getting across our message (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

[It] continues the living wage campaign and highlights the key players in the garment industry that are responsible for our conditions (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

They decided on a fashion show where workers would model the brand-name clothes they make everyday in the factories, but they’d do it with a very clear message to the brands – stop the violence, stop the exploitation, and pay a decent wage (Source: Stilwell 2014a np link).

‘Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality’ was the collective brainchild of AJWS  [American Jewish World Service] grantee Worker’s Information Center (WIC) and several other organizations working to promote the rights of Cambodia’s roughly 700,000 garment workers - 90 percent of whom are female (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

The Workers Information Centre is a partner organisation of the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) (Source: Anon 2014b np link).

Beautiful clothes: Ugly Reality, was organised by ActionAid Cambodia’s local Safe Cities programme partner, Workers Information Centre (WIC) (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

Established by workers, for workers, WIC helps these young women stand up for their rights. To achieve this, it runs a network of drop-in centers where garment workers can counsel each other; access health information and legal assistance; analyze and discuss shared concerns; and organize to press for change (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

WIC’s work is critical in Phnom Penh, where the concrete walls of the textile mills shield the public’s eyes from egregious human rights abuses. Behind these walls, factory owners force laborers to work overtime in poorly ventilated, overheated spaces; deny them sick days and holidays; and in some cases, attack them physically and assault them sexually - all while paying them paltry wages upon which they struggle to survive. With WIC’s help, garment workers come together to support each other and fight these abuses (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

Dear All, Workers’ Information Centre (WIC) would like to invite you or your representative / friends to join our event ‘Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality’ by Cambodian Women Garment Workers’ Fashion Show. The event will held on 25th May 2014 at 3pm-6pm at our office located at #3-4, St339, Sang kat Boeng Keng Kong1, Khan Toul Kok, Phnom Penh (Source: Srorn 2014 np link).

On a rare day off, workers busied themselves assembling a catwalk at United Sisters Alliance, a feminist NGO active in Phnom Penh since the early 2000s. The large first floor opened onto a leafy street in the city’s diplomatic quarter. The models – women in their twenties and thirties – applied dramatic makeup, fit their feet into killer heels, and donned clothes they never could have afforded if they’d had to pay market prices. American and European house music blared; pink and white lights pulsed (Source: Orleck 2018, 121 link).

Their demands … paraded by the women and voiced in a subsequent Q&A with the media, include raising the monthly minimum wage to $160 (£95.44) to afford them a decent and dignified standard of living, and an end to the short-term contracts that deny women maternity leave and expose them to effective dismissal if they fall pregnant. Other demands include an end to forced overtime; to be treated with respect and not subjected to violence; opportunities for higher education (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

The … show serves as a platform to highlight the huge income disparities between garment workers and apparel brand owners as well as to advocate for a living wage and better working conditions for these workers (Source: Anon 2014b np link).

Ahead of this afternoon’s planned talks between government representatives and international fashion labels, garment workers toting riot gear and fake guns yesterday staged a re-enactment of January’s lethal crackdown on protesting workers at the start of the year (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

Event organizers said the show was designed to stress to both the government and the brands being displayed – H&M, Adidas, Puma, Gap, Old Navy and Nike – the need for a higher basic wage (Source: Dara and Willemyns 2014 np link).

Aside from the Cambodian government, the workers singled out apparel giants such as H&M, Gap, adidas, M&S, and Nike as being responsible for ensuring their calls for a livable wage are answered – and soon (Source: Kasztelan 2014 np link).

‘If we don’t demand, there will be no change,’ said Phon Sreivin, one of the workers who took part in the program (Source: Dara and Willemyns 2014 np link).

Lin Na, 22, who took part in the catwalk, works at Evergreen Apparel (Cambodia). She said for a basic salary of $100 per month, she works from 7am until 4pm five or six days per week, and works overtime until 7pm almost every day. ‘The salary is not fair compared to the work we do,’ she said, wearing a Puma sweatshirt. ‘I’m wearing the brands to show the buyers that their clothes are made by us. I want them to understand the link between the clothes I make and the garment workers’ situation and our salaries’ (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

John Sophea, a 26-year-old factory employee who played the part of one of the military police, said he hoped the performance would deliver the message to brand owners that the authorities had used violence. During January’s demonstrations, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito defended the use of force, saying that it was necessary to maintain security. ‘We want to show how the soldiers used violence against the workers – to send this message out to the brands and also the government,’ Sophea said (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

[The participants] have also demanded ‘rice not bullets’, a slogan referring to the poor nutritional status of women workers, who often cannot afford sufficient food because of their low pay. This, combined with the long hours in stifling, cramped conditions, has led to mass faintings and a range of health issues, while the privatised healthcare system means treatment is often beyond reach (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

The offer of $100 per month minimum wage remains a starvation wage, which we could not accept while we have to spend about $150 per month on living costs such as rented rooms, food, utilities, transport, health care and supporting our families. Speaking for the principle of egalitarian and equitable treatment, we want to highlight that we could not accept the current divided society and capitalist greed (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

Among the main demands presented by event participants were the end of the exploitation and violence against workers, an end to a ban on public gatherings, and a long overdue minimum wage increase to the tune of $160 per month (Source: Kasztelan 2014 np link).

This was an attractive, critical and political event that workers could conduct in a safer manner despite the current intimidating situation. This is a way to help break fear. All we want is rice, not bullets. Our objectives with the show were: 1. To highlight the income gap between Cambodian textile and garment workers and the CEOs of selected brand companies, including H&M, Adidas/Reebok, Levi, Marks & Spencer, Joe Fresh, Puma, Gap/Old Navy, Champion. They make billions of profits each year. We want to hold them accountable for the current wage campaign deadlock. 2. To express the views of garment workers toward the oppression and violence they have faced and to call for a just resolution between the government, the Garment Manufacturers Association and unions. 3. To call on the government to end all forms of violence and immediately to end the ban on public gatherings (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

‘Cambodian Factory Workers Fainting in Droves’. This headline is just two months old, but it's already been (mostly) forgotten, left undiscussed and certainly not connected to our everyday lives. Until now. Canadian photojournalist Heather Stilwell is flipping this reality with a stunning [video] portrayal of ingenious and brave Cambodian women. How? I give you two words: fashion. show (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

[Stilwell] says, ‘Because a lot of the clothes made here are sold where I'm from, I hope I can help communicate what workers are going through to people back home. The brands do their best to keep these things quiet, and I felt I needed to document it because we simply can't ignore the violence and suffering that goes on for the people making these clothes, especially when they're risking their lives to fight against it. I don't think anyone would feel comfortable perpetuating this system if they knew the reality of it, yet we continue to buy clothes without demanding more from the companies who produce them and profit from them’ (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Chrek Sophea of WIC said, ‘We wish to inform [consumers] …, especially those who use these brand companies’ products to know about the Cambodian garment workers’ situation and take part in holding the brand companies accountable by asking them to commit to solve the current minimum wage campaign deadlock’ (Source: Anon 2014a np link).

In addition, we want to restore the hopes of our workers and be united and strengthened, pursuing our struggle for decent working and living conditions, a fair wage for fair work and equitable treatment in our workplaces and society (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

Videos of the event were posted on YouTube [Chenla Media], Vimeo [Heather Stilwell] and Facebook, where they were viewed by tens of thousands of people worldwide (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

Discussion / Responses

Since the brutal crackdowns on Cambodian garment worker protests in January, the media attention has been dominated with stories of the exploitation and violence that these workers, mostly women, face daily. What’s missing are the stories of how so many of these women are so often finding the bravery and ingenuity to stand up to this oppression. That’s why the recent garment worker event, ‘Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality’ was so amazing to see (Source: Stilwell 2014b np link).

These horrid realities have left Cambodian workers with only one choice: to get creative - ingenious, really - with their protests (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Creativity has the power to change the world (Source: Navarro 2014 np link)!

The latest in creative activism in Cambodia: Music video of self-styled fashion show with great dancing. #freethe23 #MW160KH (Source: International Labour Rights Forum 2014 np link).

Inspiring action from factory workers in Cambodia … Check it (Source: Metroviral 2014 np link)!

Just watched this really sweet video about a dark issue, check it out … (Source: @littleboyd 2014 np link).

Your courage is just #beautiful - stay strong & keep #speakingout (Source: @angelenabonet 2016 np link).

Powerful and beautiful video put on by garment workers in Cambodia (Source: Class Struggle Clothing 2014 np link).

The event may have seemed like a harmless way for the women to express themselves, but when you’re standing up for yourself, even a fashion show has its risks (Source: Stilwell 2014b np link).

At face value, the show seemed like an entertaining way for the workers to spend their single day off. But a closer look revealed that the event was about far more than having fun: it was an act of defiance, a show of solidarity and, most of all, a call to action (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

A fashion show was an ideal way to highlight their bravery and ingenuity in the face of oppression (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen re-enactments of state repression … on the catwalk (Source: Jinja 2014 np link).

ROAR To The World (Source: Soeun 2014 np link).

Fantastic Garment workers kicking arse (Source: @messyfay 2014 np link).

Smart girls (Source: milkncereal 2014 np link).

The fierce men and women of the clothing factories in Cambodia! ‘Stop all exploitation of garment workers' (Source: Farrell 2014 np link)!

Import for everyone to see. Strong women standing up for the exploitation of garment workers (Source: E. Shaw Jewels 2014 np link)!

Their resolve is made even more significant by the fact that it is discouraged in traditional Cambodian culture for women to challenge authority, putting female garment workers at a significant disadvantage in labor disputes (Source: Matthews 2014 np link).

what these women did. … every act of defiance has a risk associated with it. Not to mention the work - and pay (Cambodian garment workers only make $80 per month) - they gave up to participate in the show and the time they spent after full shifts to rehearse (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Good for those girls. The garment workers deserve more money (Source: picooie 2014 np link).

Out of curiosity, what amount would you think is fair (Source: Mackevili 2014 np link)?

The risk that these women take - with their safety and their job security - is huge. But our (American) risk in helping? Is purely monetary (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Wonderful! I’m tempted to wear a Ghandi style cotton wrap in protest … How can we help (Source: Holmes 2014 np link)?

This is the way to be the change you want to see (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

These garment workers want nothing more than to be treated fairly and paid a living wage. When these simple requests are met with riot shields and rubber bullets, it’s time to stand up and ask what’s going wrong (Source: Rob 2014 np link).

I support them and I really like their action I believe change will come I am convinced because a great people as khmer cant stay behind others in terms of social progress, democracy and freedom … They need rice no bullets I share their words (Source: Ruffin 2014 np link)!!

Stop talking blah blah blah equitable development, reducing gaps of inequality, ending poverty, protect and respect human rights, democracy, participation, peace ... Do it (Source: Anon 2014a np link).

Dave Chen, husband, father of two and economics teacher at an international school in Bogotá, Colombia, says … we need to bring this issue closer to home - it's already there after all - and start by looking at our shopping list. He explains ‘I heard a quote in a movie about fair trade coffee that people say fair trade products have a higher price to them and I say no, everything has got the same price. It just depends who we want to pay it. So if you pay less for something, someone is paying for it down the line. They are paying the difference and normally they are paying in their lifestyle’ (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Ken Johnson is an author and expert on culture and conflict studies. He explains how connected we are to these factory workers' conditions, and how we take part in them, oftentimes without even realizing it. Johnson says, ‘Americans are fueling harsher conditions in factories as we demand cheaper and cheaper goods. This causes businesses to move deeper and deeper into various Third World nations to find 'greener pastures' for their sweat shops and other atrocious operations based off of daily human rights violations. Most Americans never see this side of things. The American news media surely will never report on it. And the average citizen [doesn't see] the delicate interconnectivity transpiring here on a global scale’ (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

Companies have maximised their profits by going to poor countries to have them produce clothing under conditions that would at any other time in our world’s history be considered as a form of slavery and gross abuse, but because they are large companies who donate money and favors to politicians in wealthier countries the governments turn away and pretend that they do not see the human rights abuses. The only ones who benefit are the companies and those who own shares in those companies (Source: Montague 2015 np link).

Why can the children of the prime minister go to higher education and the children of CEOs live privileged lives and have access to adequate health care, while we are living in desperately poor conditions and exploited as a workforce? We do not demand more than is possible but just to live in dignity (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

Cambodian garment workers produce hundreds of thousands of items of clothing each day for export to the US, Europe and other parts of the world. Just two big brand companies make billions of dollars profits from their work and pay their CEOs huge salaries and bonuses. The CEO salaries of just two of these companies, GAP Inc and H&M, are equal to the combined wages of about 700,000 Cambodia textile and garment workers (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

Number on[e] I am very anti union. In the USA unions were good at one point but now they do more harm than good. The starting wage in China is $250.00 for unskilled workers. $120 to $140.00 does not seem unreasonable for Cambodian factory workers. The problems is if they get a raise everyone will want a raise like the police, civil servants, the army etc etc etc. It is a sticky wicket for the powers that be. It would be smarter to give the workers a decent raise and not have the unions. The unions will cause all kinds of problems at least in my opinion (Source: picooie 2014 np link).

An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I do believe that you ought to write more on this issue, it might not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t speak about these issues. To the next (Source: Anon 2014b np link)!

I for once can speak from experience here. I have owned/ started/ sold and invested in numerous mass production types of business here in Cambodia. Most with a staffing of 500 to 1,500 of unskilled girls. There are only two reasons that any of my businesses have had an advantage over China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and they are both financial. First, the working wage here is only 25-30% of China but lets not forget that productivity is also 50% below that of China. Therefore there is a direct saving to be made by coming to Cambodia in lower wages. The second part s the QUIP status, (Qualified Investor Project) this entitles you to a 4 year tax window which means massive savings on importing of raw materials and exporting the finish product. Plus no tax on profit for 4 years. To me, Cambodia is at a crossroads as sooner or later the wages will increase and other countries will reduce their taxation systems to be more pro-business. Unfortunately, we will always have a race to the bottom but with clever management and stewardship, Cambodia might just navigate themselves through it (Source: Garry.Crabtree 2014 np link).

Gary, I export from this country and I have to say if you do not get all of those government benefits Cambodia is one of the most business unfriendly places I have ever been. Exporting out of this country is a total rip off unless you are a large fish (Source: picooie 2014 np link).

Not sure if I can be classed as a large fish but I’ve never had any issues exporting from Cambodia. I usually export 20 TEU per month which is small fry compared to some of the larger factories. Its not easy or straightforward but I pay my khmers very well IF AND WHEN they can produce the goods and we meet our clients deadlines. To me you need to put the best Khmer staff you can find, into the right places. I have khmers earning 5K a pcm so I expect them to work damn hard and make sure my container never gets held up or misses the boat (Source: Garry.Crabtree 2014 np link).

Garry, that is still pretty big in my book. Cambodia offers no incentives to export unless you are greasing palms. If you are just doing a few containers a year it is one of the more expensive places on the planet (Source: picooie 2014 np link)

Our everyday part in this lies in the clothes and merchandise we buy. Think back to high school economics and the basics of supply and demand. American consumers demand lower prices and factory owners find ways to supply them. These ‘ways’ lie in the poor working conditions and low wages of the workers themselves (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

We often look at stories of horrid working conditions and oppression and don't see ourselves within them. But there's a path to be traced to the Cambodian garment industry and people in the U.S. are a part of it (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

[These garment workers are] not asking people to pity them ... they're asking people to really think about the clothes they buy and to ask questions about where they come from and under what conditions ... and they're asking others to join them in the movement to change those conditions for the better ... This fashion show was such a smart move by some incredibly strong women (Source: Stilwell in Breen 2014 np link).

[Heather] Stilwell says, simply, ‘Consumers really need to think about the enormity of this.’ Once you’ve thought about it, do something (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

[Ken] Johnson expresses the need to know what and who we're voting for and engaging in letter writing and other forms of protests just like these Cambodian women do. He says, ‘What these women are doing is something that all of the world should be engaging in ... civil and vocal social protests’ (Source: Breen 2014 np link).

We then ask, ‘Where can Cambodian civil society, including garment workers, meet and continue speaking about our issues until our demands are met?’ Although there are restrictions on our ability to advocate our human and labour rights, we still find ways because we learned that silence allows the powerful to continue their exploitation and oppression (Source: Pisey 2014a np link).

[An event like this] … acts to bring the workers into full view. It enables a direct dialogue between maker, designer and consumer and highlghts the need for all three to co-exist in facilitating, questioning, provoking and actively seeking for more sustainable social solutions for the current systems (Source: Lambert 2014 np link).

[Heather] Thank you for putting together this beautiful and inspiring recap of the event. It looks amazing. And thank you to all the people who organized and participated in the event! I’m sorry to have missed it, but I’m spreading the buzz far and wide (Source: Hoefinger 2014 np link)!

Thanks Heather for using your professionalism to support the struggle of Cambodian garment workers. Your work is vitally important. With respect and solidarity (Source: Pisey 2014b np link)!!!

See it might become viral (Source: Talbot 2014 np link)!

Outcomes / Impacts

I watched it, it was a fashion show. Glammed up factory workers. What is the result of the fashion show? How does it make change (Source: Hearman 2014 np link)?

1. Gets attention for more people to understand what is happening (ie not ‘just’ a fashion show – the context is what makes it). 2. It needs to be linked to action – I suggest Clean Clothes. First world consumers need to pay the real cost of their clothes. If it is not yet going in proper wages and conditions for the workers then it should go to the campaigns to bring about those wages and conditions. Hence the link to Clean Clothes (Source: Seaborn 2014 np link).

It seems like whenever these workers make a gain, something new gets thrown at them, but it’s the organisers’ hope that as more women see their coworkers at events like these, more and more will be willing to speak up about the ugly reality they face (Source: Stilwell 2014b np link).

… as the WIC fashion show and wider events in Cambodia show, women and men are increasingly standing up to this exploitation, while engendering a clear vision of a more equitable future. A statement issued by the garment workers at the event read: ‘We believe that our unity of our struggle is the key battle against the oppressors and [will] create a better economic model which is a more equitable distribution of wealth … Our unity will create a better path and society so that our children and our children’s children may be free from oppression, exploitation and inhumane treatment’ (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

Almost two years since the tragic crackdowns of 2014, Cambodian garment workers are regaining their confidence and resolve to press for further changes - oftentimes with the support of WIC. In the words of one young woman: ‘Working with WIC gave me the confidence to speak out, to go up against the factory owners, to organize other women into the union. Before I was silent, but now I’m defending my rights’ (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

While it is positive and encouraging to see the brands responding in this way, the power they wield is, of course, a huge part of the problem. The constant downward pressure they exert on prices paid to the factories for vast clothing volumes in a context of fierce competition between South Asia’s garment exporting countries -  many of which have dismal records for human rights and gender discrimination -  inevitably leads to a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions for these female-dominated sectors (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

IndustriALL and UNI [Global Union] … say they are encouraged that brands are taking responsibility for their production and are demanding a change from the Cambodian government. The[ir] letter, dated Friday, urged the government to launch a new process to set minimum wages and to respect the rights of workers and trade unions. The brands also asked for a meeting with [Cambodian Prime Minister] Mr. Hun Sen himself. The group expressed its concern at the killing and wounding of workers and bystanders by security forces on 2 and 3 January, when peaceful demonstrations were taking place over an increase in the minimum wage (Source: Anon 2014c np link).

Concerned about their brand image following the shocking events of January, along with supply disruptions from repeated strikes, have prompted 30 of the major brands to join up with international trade union federations, such as IndustriALL, to condemn the violence and call for the release of the demonstrators. They have also engaged in talks with the government about raising the minimum wage, with initial reports indicating they would support an increase (Source: Noble 2014 np link).

Union leader Ath Thorn says the meetings offer a chance to improve the sector’s image and stability, which would benefit workers and brands. He adds, Cambodia should act fast to benefit from problems afflicting the region. ‘In this situation now, Vietnam and Thailand have a lot of problems. If the government can take the opportunity to be better in Cambodia, maybe we can get more business in Cambodia’ (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

The day after the fashion show, representatives of eight international brands met with Cambodian Government officials in Phnom Penh to discuss the garment workers’ demands. In a positive step, the brand representatives affirmed their support for a higher minimum wage for garment workers (Source: Anon 2014d np link).

It was a very opportune moment as a number of labels were in town to meet with manufacturers (Source: Jinja 2014 np link).

The government will meet with major brands including H&M, Gap, Levi’s and Puma, as well as IndustriALL Global Union, to discuss garment worker rights and wages in the second round of talks between the parties. ‘We want to show the gap between the salary of the worker and the salary of the brand owner,’ said Chan Reaksmey from the Workers’ Information Centre, which organised the fashion event. ‘But we also want to talk about the crackdown that happened on the workers in January’, she added (Source: Wight 2014 np link).

PHNOM PENH - Representatives from some of the world’s largest fashion brands and the leader of one of the world’s biggest union organizations met this week with Cambodian officials and local clothing manufacturers to demand better treatment and improve workplace safety for the country's estimated 600,000 garment workers (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

Raina, who attended this week’s meetings says brands delivered three key messages to the government; that they are willing to pay their subcontractors more to ensure workers receive a higher minimum wage, that the government must work faster to set up a mechanism that reviews the minimum wage on a regular basis and in a realistic manner, and that it stops using violence and the courts against workers and unions (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

‘The brands are very dependent on their image,’ [IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina] said. ‘Consumers are asking questions, and it is not good news for sales or reputation if the media reports, as they regularly do, about violations of workers’ rights, slave labor wages as Pope Francis called them, and otherwise long working hours and unsafe and unhealthy work places. That is one thing, of course. The second thing is that the brands need to be sure of the stability of the sourcing, so if there is unrest then that of course causes problems because they do not get their products’ (Source: Carmichael 2014 np link).

[However] there was no detailed discussion, commitment to resolve the dispute, or respond to the demand for a minimum wage of $160 a month. There was just more avoiding of responsibility and blaming workers. There was no commitment from any of the parties that would deliver on promises to ensure job security, fair wages and decent working and living conditions for garment workers (Source: Sokunthy 2014 np link).

According to Sok Thareth, an assistant coordinator at the Workers Information Centre, high street brands sourcing garments from Cambodia ‘need to be accountable for the workers.’ Furthermore, Thareth asserted, the vast profits enjoyed by the multinational corporations ‘should be shared with the workforce’ in a more equitable manner. When asked what she thinks about pledges from companies such as Sweden’s H&M - who have stated that they would be willing to absorb a price increase in order to raise worker’s wages - she said that the textile giant has yet to deliver (Source: Kasztelan 2014 np link).

In an e-mail statement, H&M press officer Thérèse Sundberg told [Asia journalist collective] Ruom that while government-driven wage development often takes too long to develop, the company wants to ‘take further action and encourage the whole industry to follow’ (Source: Kasztelan 2014 np link).

According to reports carried by just-style and Shanghai Daily, global brands including H&M, GAP and the Inditex Group (Mango, Zara etc.) have indicated that they support higher minimum wages for Cambodian garment workers. As consumers with voting rights i.e. purchasing power, let’s hold these highly-profitable labels accountable for the promises they have made (Source: Anon 2014e np link).

The heroic efforts of the activists were rewarded in November 2014, when the Cambodian government raised the minimum wage of garment workers from $100 to $128 per month (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

Their tireless advocacy saw further success in October 2015, when the government agreed to further increase the monthly salary to $140, effective January 1, 2016. Although still $20 a month short of the workers’ goal, the increase signaled that, with the right amount of pressure, the Cambodian government can be moved to act in favor of human rights (Source: Ziv 2015 np link).

References / Further Reading

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Page compiled by Caroline Weston Goodman as part of a internship funded by the Kone Foundation, edited by Ian Cook (last updated April 2018). Video embedded with permission of Heather Stilwell. Compilation, editing and translation supported by the Kone Foundation.