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“I don’t think I can improve much, but I noticed that I can work a bit faster on my sewing,” Seng said. Because of being able to work overtime, she earned extra $120 on top of her basic salary of $90 a month.

garment factory that innovates baby products
The facade of Combi (CAMBODIA) Company, a garment factory that innovates baby products in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Seng Phalla, 24, started as a garment factory worker in 2009 without any work experience and had only a Khmer identity card as a requirement.

Seng Phalla
Seng Phalla, garment factory worker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The company, Yongwa Factory Limited in Phnom Penh, trained her for three months until she learned to sew.

“I don’t think I can improve much, but I noticed that I can work a bit faster on my sewing,” Seng said. Because of being able to work overtime, she earned extra $120 on top of her basic salary of $90 a month.

The factory later installed modern machines that work automatically and help gain production speed.

“At first, it’s a bit difficult to adapt with those modern sewing machines. But, after a while, they are very convenient to use. Our work is a bit smoother,” Seng said.

sew baby clothes
Factory workers, mostly women, sew baby clothes at Combi (CAMBODIA) Company, Limited, in Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone.

Seng is among the 600,000 garment manufacturing workers, of which 86 percent are women, in Cambodia.

The country has a total workforce of 8.6 million in 2014, according to World Bank. The employment rate rose by 10.2 percent during the first six months of 2015 from that of the same period in 2014.

Considered as the “backbone of the economy,” the sector contributed 10.2 percent of the gross domestic product in 2015 with the sale revenue of $7.1 billion.

The number of operating garment factories grew from 626 at the end of 2014 to 655 factories in 2015.

Trade union law

The industry is eyeing for further growth, as the impending passage of the trade union law has attracted many businessmen.

Investors in garment industry are looking into having preferential benefits from the Trade Union Law when it will be passed by the National Assembly.

“If the law is good, they will invest more in Cambodia”, said Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) in a meeting with the Cabinet in late January.

The draft law has been under consideration since 2008, being a subject of discussions over the years among labor unions, employers’ associations and the International Labour Organization. It is expected to be amended by this year.

Sustainable growth

Kaing Monika

The sector’s export sales increased by 14.5 percent in 2015 from the previous year, but have not yet reached the highest goal, according to Kaing Monika, deputy secretary general of GMAC.

“In order to sustain the growth of our exports, we may ask the U.S. to continue on tax exemption policy on Cambodia,” he added.

The United States used to be the largest destination of Cambodia’s garment products until the European Union took over upon implementing tax exemption.

The EU market accounted for 43 percent of the total overseas sales, followed by the U.S. with 30 percent and other countries, mostly Canada and Japan, with the remaining 27 percent.

“We can achieve it, unless we have good investment environment, good relationship between employers and employees, and effective governing law, plus the tax exemption from the U.S. and European markets,” Kaing said.

To maintain the country’s growth and ease its dependency on garment sector, the government is planning to attract “more sophisticated light manufacturing” investments, such as electronics and auto parts. These types of producers will help advance domestic skills and increase wages, according to a report from Voice of America.

Poverty rate

As one of the main drivers of economic growth, the garment sector has helped bring down the poverty rate in the country.

Approximately two out of 10 Cambodians are poor in 2014, compared with five out of 10 in 2004, according to World Bank.

Seng earns $210 a month and has to share a room with her other five cousins who are also garment factory workers. She spends a total of $100 for water, electricity and rental fees every month.

“Most workers often faint because they keep saving as much as they can. I don’t care much about saving, that’s why I am healthier than them,” she said.

During her spare time, Seng is studying the Korean language, hoping to follow her elder brother, who works in a factory in South Korea.

“If I would have a chance to work for three or four years in South Korea, I could save some money and open my own small groceries shop in my home town when I come back,” she said.

About the author – Leanghort Sok

Leanghort

Leanghort Sok (Vephea) is a Hinrich Global Trade Leader Scholar. He got a full scholarship for Master of Arts in International Journalism Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University in 2015.

He is currently a Sales Coordinator for Export Assistance Program Cambodia, undertaking a one-year extended internship as part of the Work Integrated Learning program of the Hinrich Foundation. His internship will help better prepare him for a trade-related career in Cambodia after graduation.

Formerly a News Reporter for Cambodian News Channel (CNC TV), Leanghort also worked as a staff member at the Cambodian Mekong Bank.