Made in Cambodia


Year: 2006

Author: Helen Clare

Type: Undergraduate dissertation

Full reference: Clare, H. (2006) Made in Cambodia. Undergraduate Geography dissertation, University of Birmingham.

Availability: free of charge (pdf file, download).

Page reference: Cook, I. (2011) Made in Cambodia. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/madeincambodia.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)


Made in Cambodia


It's early afternoon as we hurtle down National Road #4, the rain pouring down. It’s a particularly wet day, monsoon season. We’re squashed onto the moto, in ponchos. Tola points out the factories, huge white warehouse-type buildings, usually with the name of the factory emblazoned across the side, in Khmer, Chinese or English. He points out people driving motos carrying huge bundles of clothing on the back of their motos. The factories have thrown them away and people root through the bins, to then make them into doormats and sell on. I am still desperate to find out if the people we are going to visit produce for H&M. Tola doesn’t think so. Feeling quite disappointed, we turn into the road leading to the compound.

We drive through the gate and dismount outside one of the doors. Tola greets the lady like a long lost friend. We take off our flip-flops, and leave them outside in the courtyard. I now have very muddy feet! Tola introduces us to Sarom, the owner of the room, a younger teenage girl (her niece), and another young woman, Sreymom. We greet them with the sompiah, pressing our hands together in a prayer like position and bow, saying ‘chim-rip-sur’ – ‘hello’ in Khmer. Each of the rooms in this compound, of which there are about eight around the courtyard, are no more than six by four metres, with three camping-style beds. It is small and dark. There are no windows, and an open door. The walls were covered in magazine pictures, which I find out are of famous soap actors and actresses.

We sit cross-legged on the floor. A man then enters the room – Seythung. Tola asks if I have the t-shirt with me. Yes I do. ‘Show them’, he says. I take it out of my bag. Everyone wants to have a look at it. They pass it round. Tola says that they may not know who they are producing for a lot of the time. They don’t recognize the H&M label, though. Sethung leaves the room and comes back with his daughter who is about two years old. She had been running around in the courtyard and was interested by these two white girls with funny yellow hair! Sethung also had a shirt. He pointed at the label. ‘Puritan’. 'Do I know it? Is it sold in England?' He asks me if customers in England are forcing the prices of the products to fall. I try to explain that it’s not the same as in Cambodia. We don’t barter, but that we are forcing prices to fall by demanding cheaper products.

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology 

The [undergraduate dissertation] I read [before I did my research] was about people in Sri Lanka and England whose lives were connected through the tea trade [Wrathmell 2003 link]. It was amazing. It was so real, reading about the people she had gone and visited. You could imagine being there. It scared me quite a lot, actually. I thought, ‘could I do this?’ ‘Could I actually go somewhere and do this?’ (Source: Clare in Allsop et al 2010, p.7).

In Cambodia, I was treated as the rich western white-skinned girl. People thought I was too young to be travelling on my own. People would say, ‘Your parents are OK with you coming out here? Are you from a good family?’ When we visited a compound where some of the factory workers lived, it attracted almost the whole village. And there was this one lady who asked, ‘Could I come back to England with you? Could I be your servant?’ And I was like ‘Oh my God! We don’t have servants. I do my own washing. I clean my own house.’ And she just couldn’t understand it at all. It was seriously bizarre (Source: Clare in Allsop et al 2010, p.12).

...sometimes I couldn’t keep it in. I was so close to tears that it was obvious to everyone there. There was this guy who lived in this tiny house with his wife and daughter. His wife also worked in a garment factory. He came across and wanted to interrogate me about what I’d found out. Like, ‘How much do people get paid here?’ I did my best to answer his questions. We spoke through a translator and used very basic English. He started telling me about how he worked in his factory’s ironing department and sometimes had to work from seven in the morning until three the next afternoon. He told me that they got a little package of rice to keep them going through the night. Then he said that sometimes he’d be so tired he’d iron over his hand. And he was smiling when he said it. His daughter was running around outside. She was peering in at me and my friend. She was so intrigued by us. And then he told me that he can’t afford to send her to school. It was just so real. The initial aim of my research was to identify the people in Cambodia who had made my t-shirt. But it turned out more that I was identifying with them. That turned out to be a big theme in my dissertation(Source: Clare in Allsop et al 2010, p.13-14).

[My dissertation] was totally ‘biased’. But then, hopefully, the people marking it can understand that ‘bias’ because I was there, experiencing those things. What I said was backed up by everything I saw. That’s why I think what I think. It’s situated knowledge. You don’t have to like it. Just read it. (Source: Clare in Allsop et al 2010, p.16).

Further Reading

Allsop, D., Allen, H., Clare, H., Cook, I.J., Raxter, H., Upton, C.,  & Williams, A. (2010). Ethnography & participant observation. In Gomez, B. & Jones, JPJ III (edsResearch Methods in Geography: a Critical Introduction, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (download draft at http://followthethings.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/allsop-et-al-ethnography.pdf)

Compiled by Ian Cook et al (last updated February 2011). Dissertation downloadable with permission of author.