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Cambodia – Living solidarity

The Lindalva centre in Cambodia was founded by missionaries in order to support families and women who work like slaves in the textile factories.

At a quarter past eleven, some pregnant women go out a small door, next to the entrance of the Korean Hansoll textile company, located in the industrial area of the capital Phnom Penh. They walk fast through the dusty road to seek shelter from the sun in the shadow of trees. The heat is oppressive and these few minutes of rest are the best moment of the day. Five minutes later, the main entrance of the factory opens, and a large group of women reaches the other colleagues to have lunch together.

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The bright colours of their clothes and their jokes make one almost forget the reality: as a matter of fact these women have little reasons to laugh. Many of them work, in terrible conditions, in textile factories that produce trousers and shirts for the Asian and European markets. They have to produce much, in the least time possible, and at the lowest price. The wages they earn are barely enough to survive, even working overtime. Earlier this year, the minimum wage in the textile sector was 62 Euros a month in Cambodia. Workers should earn four times more to have survival guaranteed, according to “Asia Floor Wage Campaign”, which is a campaign to set a concrete minimum living wage across Asia. The initiative brings together labour and human rights organizations. Strikes and sometimes violent protests and clashes with police took place in the country and some workers were killed and others injured. The result achieved was just a small increase in salary. The “Asia Floor Wage Campaign” has been supported by an international campaign launched to raise awareness about workers’ conditions in Cambodia, who suffer poor nutrition, long working hours, miserable living conditions in the factories and in their shacks, and lack of safety standards and health benefits.

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The industrial area of Pochentong is near the airport of Phnom Penh, where once there was a swamp. Since the moment the Chinese and Korean companies discovered that Cambodia is “the kingdom” of cheap labour, industries multiplied around the capital, and workers live in the slums of the industrial areas located just behind the factories. There are no paved roads there, and workers have to walk through rivulets of dirty water to reach the factories.

Microcredit projects

Oum Ratha is a 15 years old girl, who lives with her parents and two brothers in a tiny shack. Actress and model posters are hanging on the wall next to her bed. Children and teenagers are those who dream the most about a better life. Oum’s family moved to the city from the countryside in search of work in a textile or footwear factory. There is plenty of work available, but the wages do not guarantee acceptable living conditions. Oum left school to go to work in a Chinese factory. “I showed my boss the document of my older sister pretending to be older to be hired,” says the girl. She sews and irons T- shirts, she works twelve hours a day from Monday to Saturday. And how about Sundays? “On Sundays I sleep, and if somebody lends me a book, I read a little bit”, she answers.

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Cambodia has signed international conventions on child labour and has approved the minimum wage guidelines. Workers in factories are mainly women and girls aged between 18 and 25. There are no kindergartens and children are left at home alone while their parents are away at work: some of them wander the streets panhandling. Some parents are forced to lock their children in their homes to protect them from being kidnapped by child traffickers.
Eighty lucky children attend the Lindalva Centre which was founded by the French nuns belonging to the Order of the Daughters of Charity. The centre is an oasis in a slum. It offers an opportunity to attend school in simple premises but at the same time with well-equipped classrooms. Oum Ratha’s younger brother attends regular classes in the centre.

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He also has lunch there, and plays with other children in a safe environment. His mother pays the very economic school fee when and if she can afford it. The centre also gives mothers the opportunity to attend a course of professional training and provides psychological support. “When we arrived at Pochentong, we met 300 textile workers, we spoke about their situation with them, we visited their homes to better understand their most urgent needs,” says Sister Eulie member of the Orders of the Daughters of Charity. The nuns try to help the most needy in the Lindalva centre, but they also operate across the entire Takeo province. They reach the villages of the province and try to convince the people not to abandon the countryside. “We started food programs and founded small circles where women can meet and support each other with microcredit in several villages” – says Sister Eulie – “While men have the opportunity to open small scooter repair shops”.

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Some women are saying goodbye to each other after meeting in Saepean. They checked the accounting and talked about the microcredit projects to finance. When Ouch Prak comes back home, her little son is lying comfortably in a hammock in front of the house while her husband is feeding some baby ducks inside the fence. Sister Eulie is also there, she has come to see how things are going on. Ouch Prak smiles at the nun and proudly shows her the pink notebook where she writes down her expenses and small incomes.”I am happy because I got the microcredit loan, and so we were able to buy a hundred baby ducks to be sold once they become adults; this way I will be able to return the loan and make some money. I do not have to work in a factory and leave my children alone at home anymore”, she says.
The Lindalva Centre, however is too small to help all those who need support. The nuns have already started to look for a larger place. “We do hope that we may soon be able to help many more women and children” – says Sister Eulie – “however it would help if European consumers became aware that clothes at bargain prices often involve labour exploitation of adults and children. Everybody should contribute to eliminate this plague, we religious cannot do it alone.” (G.P.)

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