While the fashion world swoons at models displaying this season’s couture on the runway, factory girls in Phnom Penh are trying not to faint at their sewing machines. On Wednesday, these two worlds—the fast fashion of Fifth Avenue storefronts and the churning sweatshops of Southeast Asia—are colliding with an international day of solidarity with Cambodian workers.
A coalition of human rights and labor groups has planned direct actions in at least fifteen cities across the United States and Europe. Targeting the outlets of multinational fashion brands like H&M, Adidas and Zara, protesters demand justice for Cambodian garment workers. These efforts follow a string of labor uprisings across Asia, fueled by a string of industrial disasters as well as government crackdowns on protests and strikes.
At a forum in Manhattan last week sponsored by the International Labor Rights Forum and other activist organizations, Jeff Hermanson, director of Global Strategies for the SEIU’s Workers United campaign, described the protests in the US as following the lead of the factory workers and grassroots campaigners overseas: “They’re not just victims,” he said. “They are a potential power, they are a real power.… And I hope that we here in America are part of this movement.”
Their chief demand is a pay raise, to the princely sum of $177 per month. That would add pennies to the price of a T-shirt—a rounding error for a $5 billion-a-year export industry. Nonetheless, it would mark a step toward the living-wage benchmark of more than double that amount—a figure activists calculated based on the cost of living for a family of four on a standard 48-hour workweek, backed by collective bargaining and union rights.
The “living” part is literal: hunger is an acute concern for the mostly female workforce; chronic malnourishment has reportedly factored into mass fainting spells at factories affecting hundreds of workers in recent years.
One worker interviewed for an investigative report on the phenomenon by Labour Behind the Label (LBL) and local groups recalled passing out in late 2012 at a factory that supplies Costco. She had been pregnant at the time, and then faced a terrible trade-off: