Sounding on Cambodia, January 25 2012

Happy New Year, everyone!  The Chinese Year of the Dragon is here, and many of us in Southeast Asia will catch up in April!

Just a few days ago, Cambodian unionists held a small ceremony at Watt Langka in Phnom Penh near the Independence Monument, to remember Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia president Chea Vichea, who was murdered just outside the temple’s walls on January 22, 2004. A wonderful film has been made about his murder and the aftermath, which drew some international attention to Cambodia’s apparently hopeless judiciary. FTUWKC seems to have eliminated their old website, and replaced it with a new, more frequently updated site, here. Twitter. Facebook.

We’re still experiencing mass faintings at factories in Cambodia. Noise has been made about fixing the situation, but it’s unclear to me what concrete steps are being taken.

One of my favorite Cambodia-related blog posts of the last year has to be Alison in Cambodia’s excellent post on the “Navel of the Village,” focused on Lovea. Lots of excellent photos, and a wonderful opening to the topic. Go look!

The Center for Khmer Studies has announced a new conference, June 9-10, 2012, on the topic “Religious studies in Cambodia: understanding the old and tracing the new.”

Northern Illinois University will be hosting the International Cambodia Studies Conference in September (14-16), 2012, in Rockford, Illinois, on the theme: “Imagining Cambodia.” Deadline for abstracts: March 15.

A new issue of the journal of Contemporary Aesthetics is devoted to “Art and Aesthetics in Southeast Asia.” All content is free, peer-reviewed, and online. Go check it out.

Archaeologists excavate sculpture workshop in Angkor,” says the headline over at the Southeast Asian Archaeology newsblog. Maybe this will help keep the criticisms of contemporary art workshops in tourist centers in contemporary Cambodia down? Nah, probably not. Very cool find, however.

The International Federation for Human Rights has released its regular summary of the Human Rights situation in Cambodia (2010-2011). Here’s the summary:

In 2010-2011, the space for civil society continued to shrink, with increased limitations on the freedoms of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, in particular through unfair and illegitimate judicial proceedings. Human rights defenders, operating in an increasingly restrictive legal environment, found it extremely difficult and risky to denounce human rights abusers and bad practices, while peaceful demonstrations were prevented or violently dispersed. Also, acts of intimidation continued. In addition to NGO members, many trade union leaders, land rights activists, community leaders and journalists faced fierce retaliation for documenting and denouncing abuses.

Some folks know me as someone with a rather obsessive interest in peasantry and farming. There’s an absolutely excellent, short essay from Henry Saragih, the secretary general of the Indonesian Peasant Union and the general coordinator of the International peasant’s movement Via Campesina, on CNN, about Indonesian Farmers. Most of the general trends apply directly to Cambodia, or indeed peasants everywhere. Since over 80% of contemporary Cambodians have primary work experience in peasant rice production to this day, it’s worth considering. Speaking of farming, is contract farming good for farmers? Could be: according to a new study, noted on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.


Quote: on Cambodia’s economy

I just discovered this quote on a notecard from January, when I read the wonderful edited volume published by the Center for Khmer Studies.  This quote is by Jeremy Ironside, from his article, “Development – in whose name? Cambodia’s economic development and its indigenous communities – from self-reliance to uncertainty.”  It sums up a lot of Cambodia’s developing economy’s structural problems in a very few words:

For every $100 of exported garments, $63 is spent on improving materials and $4 on utilities. Value added is thus only 1/3 of the total value, with labour costs estimated at $13 and ‘bureaucracy costs’ at $7, with total gross profits at 13%. Three-quarters of these profits are repatriated [abroad; away from Cambodia]. Therefore, only 25% of the sale prie of the garment is net value added which stays in the Cambodian economy.”

p. 123, n.6.  Ironside is citing data from M. Beresford, S. Ngoun, R. Rathin, S. Sisovanna, N. Ceema. 2004. “The macroeconomics of poverty reduction in Cambodia.” The UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Programme on the Macroeconomics of Poverty Reduction.


Sounding on Cambodia, March 19, 2010

Funded by the US State Department and the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, Undercover UXO is designed to run on the “One Laptop Per Child XO laptop.” The game will provide a consequence-free learning environment that teaches kids how to identify UXOs and report them to inspectors.

  • A lay nun burned herself inside the confines of Watt Ounalom in Phnom Penh.  If you click through, beware that the photo is pretty horrific. The reasons for this tragic action remain unclear, though there is a lot of speculation; the woman, whose current status has not been reported to my knowledge, was taken to Calmette Hospital.
  • Anne Elizabeth Moore has another excellent article on Cambodian Garment Workers. Moore has a relatively privileged perspective here, having lived as a dorm supervisor for a few months in Cambodia for the Harpswell Foundation.  The article, a followup to the last one written by Moore at Truthout, focuses on the Messenger Band, a band composed of current and former garment workers.  There’s audio on the site as well – go check it out! I cried at my computer when I read this part:

Members of the Messenger Band

Members of the Messenger Band

As garment factories close, more and more women enter the sex industry by working at the karaoke bars. You have a song about this.

Vun Em: When the factories close down, some girls will go to become entertainment workers, and HIV will spread out around. But why don’t [the NGOs] care about their living life? Why they don’t care about their family? Why they don’t care about the security of those people? Why they care only about HIV? [She starts to cry.] I don’t know, I don’t understand.

We also care about HIV, but you have to think about the lives of the people, not only HIV. If the people don’t have enough food to eat, if they don’t have enough education, if they don’t have good health, how can they prevent themselves from the HIV? They don’t have time to think about HIV, they only have time to think, I need food, I need food. All the time.

  • Land grabs continue – possibly the most important issue for Cambodians living in Cambodia – especially those whose ability to directly feed themselves is dependent upon their land.  In Kompong Speu (Starfruit Province), approximately 1,000 farmers rallied to protest the grabs.  Some farmers burned the fields that were being taken, and a video (embedded below – cautious, it’s difficult to watch) has begun making the rounds of the police violently – not to say brutally – destroying tables, buildings, and attacking people.  This needs to stop. Continue reading

Sounding on Cambodia for March 10, 2010


Raymond Robertson on Better Factories Cambodia

Macalester Economics department Professor Raymond Robertson speaks on the Macalester Talks podcast series, about his work with the International Labor Organization (ILO) project in Cambodia, called Better Factories Cambodia. Long-time readers (yes, I’m talking to both of you) realize that I have a long-standing interest in Cambodian economy and labor.

Most Recent Podcast Episode

Professor Raymond Robertson, economics, talks about his work with Better Factories Cambodia. Many factories in developing worlds have poor working standards. The program has enlisted many large scale retailers in their efforts.

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Macalester College.


Southeast Asia Sounding: 1/18/2010


Cambodian Garment Factories Closing: Debate about causes, None about effects

Garment Factories closing, fast. Alarm bells? Phnom Penh Post:

Cambodia’s garment exports to the US – the Kingdom’s largest foreign textile market – totaled US$1.8 billion in the first nine months of 2008, slightly down from the same period last year, according to data from the US Department of Commerce.

Last year, the sector exported $2.9 billion worth of garment produced in 319 factories that employed more than 380,000 workers, according to figures from Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce.

But some 30 garment factories have closed their doors so far this year, leaving nearly 20,000 workers unemployed, said Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC).

The effects of these wide-spread layoffs could be devastating for many impoverished families in the countryside, for whom the monthly salaries of relatives working in factories are one of the few sources of income available to them.

The Cambodian garment slowdown is rooted in the US recession, which has seen sharp drops in clothing sales, industry officials say.

US retailer sales tumbled in November, the worst monthly decline in almost four decades, according to Bloomberg, and the Dow Jones US Retail Index is down about 28 percent on the year.

Nuon Veasna, an employee education coordinator for the International Labour Organisation in Cambodia, said the increasing effects of international market turmoil has made it more difficult for unions to protect workers rights.

“It has always been difficult to demand worker protections from employers, but it has become harder as purchase orders continue to fall,” he said.

But Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers, says Cambodia’s garment sector has remained largely unaffected by international markets.

“For me, I do not believe the global economic crisis has affected factories much because the industry has made a lot of
progress recently,” he said, saying instead that the decisions by individual investors to close shop in Cambodia were to blame for the layoffs.

“The closing of garment factories is the result of long-time investors who want to pull out of Cambodia … in order to escape legal confrontations with their workers,” he said.

“I remain sceptical as long as there is no confirmation from relevant ministries or [national auditors] that factories have closed because of the global crisis,” he said.

Reasons for the growing decline in garment sales might vary, but the effects are not in dispute.
Sitting on a hammock beneath a plastic tarp, 29-year-old Se Thy has created a makeshift camp in front of Phnom Penh Garment City Ltd in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.

He represents 500 workers seeking compensation for lost wages.
“I have been waiting here for 10 months since the factory closed,” he said.