News: Cambodian garment workers’ performance protest this week.

Although our Challenge is to examine ‘fashion ethics in the wake of the Rana Plaza collapse’ in Bangladesh, we of course have to think about garment workers in other countries. Cambodia is particularly important, as garment workers have been mobilising for some time now. Not only have there been strikes, arrests, a trial and concern expressed by brands about this unrest (see the Clean Clothes Campaign’s facebook page for updates), but this week garment workers re-enacted the strike and held a fashion show, wearing the clothes that they make. Here’s the story, as told in three different blog posts:

Since the brutal crackdowns on Cambodian garment worker protests in January, the media attention has been dominated with stories of the exploitation and violence that these workers, mostly women, face daily. What’s missing are the stories of how so many of these women are so often finding the bravery and ingenuity to stand up to this oppression. That’s why the recent garment worker event, “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality” was so amazing to see. … Click for more

… As Cambodian pop songs blasted from a speaker, dozens of men and women acted out the violent clash, which took place on Veng Sreng Boulevard on January 2 and 3, before a crowd of hundreds at the Workers’ Information Center, a labour rights organisation in Tuol Kork. The scene was part of a politically motivated fashion show titled “Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality”, which also featured workers strutting down a catwalk clad in factory-produced dresses, jeans and sweatshirts. The show was intended to support the stalled campaign to raise the minimum wage to $160. Today the government will meet with major brands including H&M, Gap, Levi’s and Puma, as well as IndustriALL Global Union, to discuss garment worker rights and wages in the second round of talks between the parties….During yesterday’s performance at the Workers’ Information Centre, male garment workers wearing riot gear faced their female counterparts, who were kitted out in white headbands with $160 written on, and slowly rocked back and forth en masse. One woman fell to the ground and a young boy sat next to her, screaming. John Sophea, a 26-year-old factory employee who played the part of one of the military police, said he hoped the performance would deliver the message to brand owners that the authorities had used violence. … “We want to show how the soldiers used violence against the workers – to send this message out to the brands and also the government,” Sophea said.

Before the re-enactment, female garment workers took to a catwalk to model the same products they are employed to make. The clothes, bought at the local market by the Workers’ Information Centre, belonged to brands such as those meeting today. During the runway show, models held up placards describing their working conditions in English and Khmer: “Tiny unhygienic rented rooms”; “Unsafe environment”; “Forced overtime” and “No access to higher education”. Later they swapped these for placards with demands: “Drop ban on public gatherings”; “Stop short-term contracts and exploitation of workers” and “Rice not bullets”. Lin Na, 22, who took part in the catwalk, works at Evergreen Apparel (Cambodia). She said for a basic salary of $100 per month, she works from 7am until 4pm five or six days per week, and works overtime until 7pm almost every day. “The salary is not fair compared to the work we do,” she said, wearing a Puma sweatshirt. “I’m wearing the brands to show the buyers that their clothes are made by us. I want them to understand the link between the clothes I make and the garment workers’ situation and our salaries.” … Click for more

This last week garment workers took time out of their very busy working days to organize a showing of the clothes they spend hours putting together. It was a very opportune moment as a number of labels were in town to meet with manufacturers. I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen reenactments of state repression… on the catwalk. Impressed by the bravery of the participants and enthused by their work to speak directly about their hopes, dreams, needs. … Click for more

… The event may have seemed like a harmless way for the women to express themselves, but when you’re standing up for yourself, even a fashion show has its risks. A few of the organisers actually missed the majority of the show, as they were outside negotiating with police to allow the event to continue. Thankfully it was allowed to go on, as many of the workers had given up a few of their evenings to rehearse – coming to the venue straight from their shift at the factory and sleeping there overnight. It seems like whenever these workers make a gain, something new gets thrown at them, but it’s the organisers’ hope that as more women see their coworkers at events like these, more and more will be willing to speak up about the ugly reality they face. Click for more

[Thanks to Jeff Ballinger / @press4change for first alerting us to this story]

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