When I was home in New Zealand at the end of last year, one of my stories about Cambodia had a strong impact on an aunt of mine. The sister of a colleague in Cambodia is in her 60s, unmarried with no children and lives alone. She is also completely blind, since birth. Two of her nephews are also blind, one of whom arrived on the balcony, led by a small child from their nearby home, during my visit. Her brother, translating for me, explained that noone knows why the three family members are all blind. Because of severe arthritis his sister stays home alone all day and is entirely reliant on family for survival. Her blind nephews work in the rice fields alongside other family, which is their only source of survival. They make no income, but can feed themselves from the rice they grow, which is a common survival method. Both nephews are married with children, none of whom were born blind.
My aunt gave me some money to pass on to the lady, specifically to help her buy pain medication which is otherwise unaffordable. Because of her remote location, when I returned to Cambodia I met with her brother and passed the money to her via him. The family’s gratitude for this gesture was immense. She is often in my thoughts as I roam the planet while she sits on that balcony going nowhere and totally reliant on others in a country where services are very limited and almost solely in the form of non-governmental organisations. My thoughts are unknown to her and would likely be little consolation even if she knew. Not that she ever gave the impression of needing consolation. She made no complaint except to show me her painful arthritic knee which was keeping her immobile.
One of my favourite current affairs shows is a weekly American satire, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”. Last week he covered the issue of cheap clothing, which is close to my heart due to the garment industry situation in Cambodia. I’ve spoken before of the women who leave young children behind for months on end, to travel to cities and work in garment factories for US$100 per month, to ensure the children they are separated from have access to an income. During harvest season these women return home to work in the rice fields, allowing them time beyond their heavy physical days, with their family. This is such a normal Cambodian story that a surprising number of my colleagues tell their own version of it. Most people seem to have connections in some way, to the garment industry. A very common sight in Cambodia is the truckloads of factory workers being transported like cattle, to and from the workplace.
Oneday last month one of my favourite riverside restaurants closed down. A waitress I had come to know well suddenly disappeared. I was informed she had gone to Phnom Penh to work in a factory as she had no alternative. Early last year I heard the chants of demonstrators near my office when the garment workers were protesting for a rise in their minimum wage of $70/month. The park near our office was blocked by hundreds of armed guards, keeping demonstrators away from Provincial Hall across the park. The warning PM Hun Sen gave in the media oneday to protestors was menacing. The next day police fired indiscriminately into the crowds at a demonstration in Phnom Penh, killing at least five workers with absolute impunity. The minimum wage for garment workers has since been set at $120/m although I am unsure how well it is implemented.
John Oliver tapped into this story with fervour, encompassing my point about the Disconnection Syndrome which we all suffer from. He pointed out just how cheap clothing in American stores is, and that despite this fact the industry is highly profitable. According to Forbes, the 28th richest person in the world today is a guy called Stefan Persson, Chairman of H&M clothing store and worth US$24 billion. The fourth richest person in the world, worth US$64.5 billion, is Armancio Ortega, executive of Zara clothing store. In 8th and 9th, 11th and 12th places on the same list are individual beneficiaries of America’s massive chainstore Walmart.
All of these companies source their labour in the poor world, where workers are cheap and exploitation is known to be commonplace. Twice during my time in Cambodia I met people employed in America and the UK to visit factories sourced by wealthy companies and assess workplace standards. Yet, as John Oliver highlighted this week, repeat breaches of these standards are universal. This is not only demonstrated by last year’s shootings in Cambodia, but hundreds of other examples, most famous being the 2013 Rana Plaza factory complex collapse in Bangladesh which killed more than 1230 workers and injured another 2500. Clothing manufacturers connected to this factory complex include Walmart, The Children’s Place and JC Penney. Victims of this tragedy have filed a lawsuit in Washington DC against these companies, arguing that claims they did not know their orders were being subcontracted to Rana Plaza ignore the common knowledge that corruption in Bangladesh is rife, and that labour and human rights violations are the reason cheap clothing manufacture is possible in the first place.
John Oliver’s program covered the Kathie Lee Gifford controversy, an American television host with her own clothing line in the 1990s. A human rights group publicised the fact that this clothing line, sold in Walmart, was being mass produced in a Honduras sweatshop which used children as young as 12 working 14 hour shifts for 22 cents an hour. Today’s workers in Cambodia make a maximum of around 40 cents an hour by my rough calculation. The commonly held belief in the first world that this is okay because living is cheap is incorrect. Low wages merely provide people with a means to purchase food, often not enough food and usually nothing but food. Kathie Lee became an outspoken lobbyist for labour rights, testifying to Congress in 1996 that “We are now morally compelled to ask, each of us, what can we do to protect labour rights in factories around the world and right here in America”.
Not only did John Oliver highlight the fact that 20 years after this anti-sweatshop movement began, clothing continues to be made in places where labour abuses are rife. He also showed recent footage of Kathie Lee Gifford, America’s most famous defender of this cause, hosting a fashion segment of The Today Show, cooing over cheap clothes selling at The Children’s Place – one of the companies connected to Rana Plaza!
Will I return to the wealthy world and only shop for clothes which I know are made ethically? I cannot say that I will, despite being quite passionate about the issue. How can we know where the clothes we buy are made? If an ethically made skirt costs significantly more than something from a chain store which is likely connected to the garment industries of the third world, can I or will I budget to buy the ethical item? As John Oliver says, we are easily blinded by cheap prices. We are also – all of us – very disconnected, even from causes which impassion us. I am currently as disconnected from the blind arthritic Cambodian lady, as I am from any garment factory worker, despite caring about both of their causes. Both physical distance and circumstantial dissociation seem to make this an inevitability. Our comfortable lives are so far removed from the difficulties in “the other world”, that it is difficult to remain connected from afar, even with passionate interest.
Being aware of it may be the only way we can keep ourselves connected. Reality as we, in the rich world experience, is altogether different to reality as 95% of those we share this world with, experience. This week I have been dealing with an excessive water bill running into the thousands not hundreds. This would usually stress me out in extremis and initially it did. But reminding myself that my woes are nothing but First World Problems brought my stress levels down to a state of chilled-out. Given the health benefits of a calm and peaceful state of mind, refusing to maintain an indifference to poverty, corruption and suffering in the poor world probably involves some selfish advantage?