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JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1


Heng Sinith/AP.
Chao Chanda, a 23-year-old female worker, was grazed by a bullet when a security guard at a Phnom Penh garment factory\fired at protesters demanding a pay raise last month.

Hell No, We Won't Sew
Globalization be damned. In sweatshops across Asia, workers demand better pay and conditions
By ANTHONY SPAETH

Ceiling fans, scores of them, spin nonstop in the vast, fluorescent-lit garment factory south of Phnom Penh. Beneath them, more than 1,000 Cambodian women toil at sewing machines, assembling trendy clothing for retail stores around the world. The fans don't do the trick: by late afternoon, it is sweltering inside and women are fanning themselves. This is a sweatshop, pure and simple—and 19-year-old Chea Chan has had enough. She earns only $40 a month sewing waistbands on khaki pants for export to the U.S. "It makes me ashamed and angry," says Chea. "I make in one month what others pay for a single piece of clothing."

Last month, more than 20,000 workers like Chea walked off the job to protest low wages in Cambodia, one of the world's poorest nations and, until now, hardly a haven of workers' rights. In Indonesia—where more than 30 million people earn an average of $40 a month in factories producing clothes, shoes and consumer electronics for export—labor disputes have become an everyday affair: there were 2,265 last year. Vietnam, a communist country, has had 17 this year. Strikes in China, another alleged worker's paradise, have become more frequent, costly and sometimes violent.

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Asia's long-exploited factory workers are making their voices heard, downing their tools and demanding a better deal

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The political situation of each country is unique. China's leaders, for example, fear nothing more than a Solidarity-type labor uprising, while the strikes in Cambodia are at least tolerated by the government. But the economics are similar. Asian factory workers earn from $11 to $190 a month in frequently difficult conditions, often making name-brand goods for rich consumers abroad—and now they want a better deal. Says Hari Rusli, executive board chairman of Indonesia's Democratic People's Party, a leftist organization once banned under former President Suharto: "Expect more labor actions as the people become aware of their rights."

One of the promises of globalization is that jobs are distributed to countries that need them and can do them most cheaply. That process brought many Asian nations out of poverty in the past and continues to support millions. Manufacturing accounts for 23% of Indonesia's annual gdp. In Vietnam, shoe exports alone were worth $1.33 billion last year and are growing at a 35% annual clip. Garments are 90% of Cambodia's exports. But foes of globalization say that what actually gets spread around is worker exploitation, and they're calling loudly for international controls on sweatshops, child labor and other ill effects of the rush for cheap labor.

What is surprising is that low-cost laborers in Asia are suddenly finding the power of protest, though they're hardly in lock-step. In China, for example, virtually all labor actions involve unpaid wages at struggling state-owned factories, imbuing those strikes with an ominously anti-government color. In Indonesia labor unrest is a part of that country's newly flowering democracy: during the 32-year rule of Suharto, labor activists were jailed and only one government-run union was allowed to operate. Today, there are 22 labor federations and some 915,000 work days were lost in labor disputes last year. In Vietnam, there were 63 strikes in 1999, most at factories run by foreign companies.

Cambodia's nationwide strikes last month were the largest in the country's recent history. The complaint was a simple one: workers in Cambodia's 200 garment factories wanted an increase in their $40 monthly wage. After six days, the strikers returned to work on a promise that their demand would be discussed by the government's Labor Advisory Board. Factory conditions in Cambodia are also being scrutinized. Press reports tell of managers beating workers and denying them toilet breaks. In June, employees at a garment factory in Takhmau district north of Phnom Penh complained of receiving electric shocks from their sewing machines but were ordered to keep working. They finally stampeded out of the factory—nine people were injured in the rush—even though the managers had locked the gates to keep them inside. "I think Cambodia is one of the worst places in Asia today," says Morton Nielson, an analyst at the International Labor Organization. But Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Union of Cambodia, insists that incidents of abuse are isolated and that calls for a wage increase are unreasonable. "You have to recognize the reality of the situation. It is reality that a buyer, if offered 10 less per garment from another source, will go elsewhere." Perhaps. But in sweatshops across Asia, workers are learning how to rattle their chains.

—Reported by Kay Johnson/Phnom Penh, Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta and Huw Watkin/Hanoi

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