My All-American Cambodian Blue Jeans

Made in CambodiaIn the USA we didn’t invent the blue jean. We just made ‘em cool.

Jeans were first worn by the Italian Navy. But riveted jeans were first produced in San Francisco by Levi Strauss. He was a German immigrant. So, maybe blue jeans aren’t as All-American as I’d like to think, but I’ve got two words for you: James Dean.

Here’s one more: Fonzie

Levi’s has such a connection with the average American that they were one of the last companies to start sourcing internationally. The delay hurt them. It’s impossible to compete when your competition can make their product using labor that costs a fraction of what yours does.

So, now my Levi’s 501 Carpenter Pants are Made in Cambodia. Well, actually not anymore. Now that particular style is made in India. And the factory that gave life to my jeans in Phnom Penh doesn’t work with Levi’s anymore either. The Levi Sourcing Manager told me that the factory had issues with quality, efficiency, or meeting Levi’s labor standards.

The industry is nothing, if not fluid.


Levi’s

Their San Francisco office told me to contact the International Labour Organization when I arrived. This surprised me.

Every correspondence I’ve had with Levi’s or their factory has been a positive one. I won’t hesitate to buy a pair of Levi’s Made in Cambodia.

I visited the Roo Hsing factory. They washed my pants.


The Garment Miracle

In Cambodia the garment industry is seen as a miracle because it developed so fast (primarily in the last 10 years). It is Cambodia’s largest industry and accounted for about $2 billion in exports in 2006. Without the garment industry there wouldn’t be much of any industry in Cambodia.


A really, really short history of Cambodia

In the 1970’s, wiped-out by war. Awful stuff happened. People suffered before, and after. International aid organizations came to the rescue. Stuff still ain’t good.


Cambodia vs. Bangladesh

In Bangladesh I stopped traffic. I was too famous to attend rock concerts. In Cambodia I’m just another foreigner.

The presence of foreigners has shaped the garment industry here in Cambodia. There are many different organizations explaining the workers their rights and teaching them disease prevention (STD’s, malaria, dengue fever). The average worker in Cambodia gets paid about twice as much as the average one in Bangladesh.

The International Labour Organization monitors the factories and produces reports for the government and the brands that buy from the factories. I have a 62-page report from the ILO titled Women and Work In the Garment Industry. 62 pages! In one-month in Bangladesh I didn’t see a single page report.

The union I visited in Bangladesh was simply a bare room with 3 full-time employees and, as far as I know, it is the only union in the entire industry. Cambodia has 800 union and only 300 factories. Some of them are in actual offices too! Some are aligned with different political parties, some with the government, some with the factories themselves, and some are independent …kinda sort of. It’s pretty much a guarantee that if you are a factory owner, a bunch of people are going to be pissed at you no matter what you do.

In February, a union leader was shot and killed on his way home from work at the Suntex factory (where Kent’s underwear were made). I stopped in at their office and they aren’t sure who killed him. It could have been another union, it may have been the factory, or, they speculate, it even might have been the government!

The factories I saw in Bangladesh seemed to have okay conditions, but the pay sucked. In Cambodia the pay is okay and the conditions seem to be okay (although I haven’t toured any of the smaller operations that are usually the guilty parties of most of the violations).

But like I said, stuff still ain’t good.


The Workers

Chhuon, my translator, knew a neighborhood where some workers lived. We showed up and made some friends.

8 girls live in the 8’X12’ room.

A toilet is walled off in the corner.

A water spigot comes out of one wall. This is the washroom, the kitchen, and the laundry. If the door to their room isn’t shut passersby could watch them bathe from the street.

Two bamboo beds are pushed together. They’re big, but not big enough to sleep eight. Four of the girls sleep on the floor. It’s always the same four girls on the floor. They like it. The concrete may be harder, but it’s cooler. Once the window and door are shut and locked, for security purposes, there is not any ventilation. Eight people in a small room gets pretty hot.

Other than the beds, the only other piece of furniture is a metal clothing wrack, which holds the wardrobes of all eight girls.

Faded negative prints of Snow White and Cinderella posters hang on the wall. The girls don’t know either character. But there was an empty spot on the wall and they got a good deal on the posters at the market.

This might all sound depressing to some, but it isn’t really. The place is filled with giggly energy. It’s like being in a crowded room of college freshman co-eds, except these girls don’t go to class. They go to work and make our clothes.

They get paid a minimum of $50/month plus any overtime. That’s more than teachers in Cambodia get paid. It’s enough for them, but they have more people than themselves to be concerned about. The average worker supports seven people on her income.

The girls don’t like their job. But they don’t have much of a choice. Their family needs them to work, so they work. The worst part is that they live far from their families. Most of the workers are from villages in the provinces surrounding Phnom Penh. They miss being home. I wanted to see why, so I went with two of them back to their home village near the city of Kompong Cham.

Their villages are surrounded by green rice fields. The only thing more abundant than fresh air are friendly neighbors. There is enough fresh fruit to eat off the trees to make your belly ache.

I would rather live in the village than Phnom Penh…if they had internet.

Nari is 25. She’s outgoing and slightly oversized in all directions for a Cambodian girl. She had to pay a $50 for a man with connections at the factory to land her an interview. Her family owns pigs, fruit trees, and rice fields, but it’s not enough to support them. She sends money home so they can buy rice. She wants to open a beauty salon in her village and is currently taking classes in makeup application. She’ll fancy-up girls for their wedding day. Soon she will start learning how to do hair. She’s already purchased a hair iron and hopes to buy more equipment soon. She asks me a lot of questions about the cost of manicures in the USA and if girls wear extensions in their hair. I do my best to answer, but the truth is I haven’t touched my hair with a brush in ten years. Hers is the life of the average Cambodian.

Ai is 24. She’s shy, but quick to smile. She doesn’t have a contract with the factory and therefore can be fired at any time for any reason without justification. She irons some 10,000 pants/day. It’s a hot job. She would like to be a teacher, but has had only three years of education herself. She laughs when I tell her that some Americans wouldn’t buy Levi’s that were Made in Cambodia because they don’t think she’s treated fairly. Ai thinks this is ridiculous because if they don’t buy the jeans she won’t have a job. It seems simple. Her bosses won’t let her or any of her co-workers talk while they are working. She misses working in the rice fields around her village. In the rice fields they talked a lot. To get to her home we have to wade through two streams. Her father is a construction worker. He doesn’t own much more than their home. Their water buffalo was stolen two weeks ago. Her grandmother is worried about her safety in the city. Her mom visits her twice a year to bring her jackfruit, mangoes, darian, and a bunch of other fruits that I’ve never heard of. Two of Ai’s sisters live with her in Phnom Penh. They are also garment workers. Her family is poorer than Nari’s

Also, garment workers don’t like bowling. Who knew?


I came to Cambodia. I met the girls who made my pants. They giggled a lot.

 
4 comments
Kent says:

nice piece Kelsey… I like the comparison between Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Kyle says:

I like it. Good stuff for the book!

I seldom comment, however i did a few searching and wound up here
My All-American Cambodian Blue Jeans | Kelsey Timmerman.
And I actually do have some questions for you if it’s allright.
Could it be simply me or does it seem like a few of these responses look like they are written by brain dead
folks? 😛 And, if you are posting on additional online sites, I’d like to follow anything fresh you have to post.
Could you make a list of all of all your communal sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

Let your voice be heard!