Just hours after 15-year-old Kim Dany left for work at a provincial shoe factory in Cambodia last Thursday, her family, surrounded by candles and incense sticks, were crying over her lifeless body as it lay on a wooden table in their home.

In only her second full week making Asics runners at the Wing Star Shoes factory, west of Phnom Penh, Dany and a co-worker were crushed to death when an illegally built storage level collapsed, sending concrete and steel crashing down on them. Dany, desperate for money to support her impoverished family, had lied about her age and used a fake name to secure a job earning US$75 per month.

“Because our family is poor, we decided when the factory opened last year that we must work there,” Dany’s sister Kim Sameth, 17, said. “We knew conditions in garment factories were bad, but families like ours depend on this kind of work.”

In the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1100 workers in Bangladesh last month, south-east Asia’s garment markets have been touted as options for brands seeking “cleaner” alternatives. In particular, Vietnam is viewed as having strong labour laws, while Cambodia’s reputation has been bolstered in the past decade by an International Labour Organization “Better Factories” monitoring program. Further west, a modernising Burma has a previously hidden industry that is expected to flourish in the next decade.

But Dave Welsh, Cambodia country manager for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, says Dany’s death is a timely reminder that even in markets with “clean” reputations, working conditions are often illegal and in violation of human rights.

“I think it’s a misnomer that Cambodia [is a model industry]. It’s only clean compared to Bangladesh,” he said. “Bangladesh is at the bottom of the barrel, but not far above it are a lot of other countries. You may see orders flooding to Indonesia or Cambodia after what happened in Bangladesh. Industries all over south-east Asia are thriving — but working conditions aren’t.”

Governments across the region are responsible for implementing and enforcing safety standards in factories but in practice are “light years away” from actually doing anything comparable with their counterparts in the West, Welsh says. “Brands really are the ones with leverage to make changes.”

Welsh, who previously worked in Bangladesh, describes the global garment industry as a “modern-day” feudal system in which brands control every aspect of the supply chain. “And the fact they don’t own the factories gives them coverage and deniability,” he said.

“After this, I do want to go back to work. I need money — but I also need a life.”

Stephan Sonnenburg, a clinical lecturer and human rights expert from Stanford University’s Law School in the US, says brands effectively hold factories in impoverished countries to ransom with their demands for cheap labour. If a factory manager pushes for an increase in the per-unit cost of materials so he can improve factory conditions or increase wages, brands can simply threaten to up and leave, he says.

“The brands always have the very easy choice of either staying with that supplier … or looking not just at domestic but also international competitors to see if someone can match or undercut the original price,” he said. “All too often, the latter option is the one brands choose.”

Cambodia, which exports US$4 billion worth of garments and shoes each year, has so far avoided the types of tragedies that have hit Pakistan, where almost 300 garment workers died in a blaze in September, and Bangladesh, where a further 112 died in a factory fire in November. But the ILO warned last month more than 40% of factories it monitored in Cambodia didn’t have proper fire escapes. And on Monday, another 23 workers, including a pregnant woman, were injured when a cafeteria at a Phnom Penh garment factory crashed into a pond.

In the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse and its reverberations in the West, a campaign by union and labour-rights groups was successful in convincing more than 30 retailers to sign an accord promising to improve building conditions in Bangladesh. The document was inked just hours before the Wing Star collapse in Cambodia and two days after its supplier, Asics, opened its first Australian “flagship” store in Sydney.

Welsh believes it is time to create global industry standards, not just country standards, to ensure brands are accountable for conditions in all nations from which they source. “You don’t focus on one country because you have played a role in a tragedy there. If you’re committed to reform in Bangladesh, you should commit to it in Indonesia, Cambodia and everywhere else,” he said.

Since Dany’s death, Asics — the sole buyer from the factory in which she died — has not contacted her family to offer compensation. The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has said the factory probably won’t “put the onus on Asics” to do so. Asics declined to comment for this story.

Ath Thorn, president of a prominent independent trade union in Cambodia, says at the very least, brands must protect the safety of the millions of people across Asia who make their products. “Both brands and factory owners must agree to spend money to check buildings and destroy those that are not safe,” he said.

Such action would be small comfort to Dany’s sister, Sameth, who faces the prospect of returning to work this week, but it would be something.

“After this, I do want to go back to work,” she said. “I need money — but I also need a life.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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