Shortly after departing from the Phnom Penh bus station en route to the coastal city of Sihanoukville, I witnessed something that made me sit upright and pull out my camera. We had escaped city-center traffic and were in what appeared to be the “middle of nowhere,” but yet people filed out of gated industrial warehouses in droves. The road was cluttered with pick-up trucks packed to the brims with standing passengers. The trucks were so full, in fact, that it seemed as though they may start to drag on the ground. I had get pictures of this.
It wasn’t until we were miles past the final warehouse that I zoomed in on the images and realized that the passengers were almost exclusively young Cambodian women. We had passed warehouses with names such as “Spring Star Textiles” and it dawned on me that this was the textile district, the place where some of America’s largest brands outsource their clothing manufacturing to. The products that these women sew, glue, and package each day bear the all-so-familiar label, “Made in Cambodia.”
The remainder of the five-hour drive was filled with rice paddies, a rest-stop with a family of shepherds who all had cropped tails (maybe it is genetic, after all), and a gorgeous sunset. Despite the fact that the hostel where I had planned to stay apparently burned down one month ago, I settled into Sihanoukville just fine. (For the record, I would give “Snooky” an overall “pass” for anyone over the age of 24.)
Once unpacked, I did a bit of digging into what I had seen on highway NH3. Companies such as Gap, H&M, and Puma have contracted “Spring Star Textiles” and others to manufacture the items that we purchase every day at home. As the cost of labor in China and Vietnam increases, many companies are transitioning production to Cambodia, one of the 50 poorest nations in the world. The country continues to claw its way back from the hell that was 30-years of Khmer Rouge rule and civil war, and factory work is a viable option for nearly 500,000 under-educated people. On average, workers (mostly women between the ages of 18-25) log 60 hours per week and earn $110 per month. While you may think, “Well, it’s less expensive to live in Cambodia,” it’s not that much cheaper here. Factory conditions vary greatly and many workers report being unable to support their families despite working nearly 150% of a standard work week. I think that we can all agree that what’s happening here isn’t quite right.
So why do I feel the need to share this information? I’m not exactly sure. I haven’t included helpful links that you can click to alleviate the burden that these women carry nor do I want to start paying astronomically higher prices for a “cheap” pair of shorts manufactured by men in Ohio. But I do think that this story carries a lesson that we can all swallow—one that reminds us to be thankful for the circumstances into which we were born (in the US, Canada, UK…). While it’s easy to think, “I have worked for what I have,” or, “Those women could makes something of themselves if they really set their minds to it,” that is a highly Westernized viewpoint. Travel has opened my eyes to the fact that I was extremely lucky from the beginning—lucky that I was born into a family that values education, lucky to be raised in a society that wants to see each generation improve upon the last, and lucky that my family’s survival did not depend upon how much money I brought in beginning when I was in grade school. Yes, we work hard, but we truly are lucky, blessed, or however else you’d like to qualify it. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking that luck and paying it forward, whether it’s through volunteering, donations, or responsible purchasing decisions. I plan to do all three as I move forward, and I hope you will, too.