Fashion Bloggers Experience Harsh Reality of Cambodian Sweatshop Firsthand

 

Like most, my relationship with fashion developed through the women in my family. Two-piece suits, kitten heels and gold studded earrings– these are the memories of the women before me that made me love fashion and all of its countless possibilities.

However, my admiration came to a screeching halt at the age of 14. I had my first exposure to sweatshop conditions while watching Wal-mart: The High Cost of Low Price and my relationship with fashion turned into a complex one. Overseas companies were using Duromine to suppress workers’ appetite. They were forcing unruly, non-stop hours of labor and had unsanitary working conditions for workers. These laborers were only paid $3 for pieces that were being sold for 20x the price. Suddenly, my Nike kicks weren’t looking too hot. The truth is, we’re surrounded by sweatshop-made items–it’s inevitable–and it’s a reality we live in whether we like it or not.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the fabulousness of fashion, and it’s easy to forget that under that facade, there are exhausted hands stitching my look together.

The rising amount of fashion bloggers have affected the market, and they have taken the reins of fashion consumption. But in the miniseries Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion, three Norwegian fashion bloggers get a dose of real life when they are sent to Phnom Penh, Cambodia and live as sweatshop workers for a few days. To watch the full series click here.

Does this mean you should stop loving fashion? Of course not. This is not meant to incite guilt, but rather to enlighten people to a reality that exists. We must not forget this reality nor should we be oblivious and nonchalant about it. This is a global matter that cannot be simply solved overnight; however, we can take steps towards a solution. In addition to fighting for the rights of sweatshop workers, we can take small steps through shopping second-hand, upcycling, or even shopping at local shops. Next time you pick up that overseas-made top, be sure to handle with care.

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Get Inspired by Sokha Chen: From Scavenging Garbage to Starring in CNN’s “Girl Rising”

 

“I wanted to be a social worker,” says Sokha Chen, “but now I’ve decided I would rather study business so that I can set up a nongovernmental organization to help the people at the Stung Meanchey garbage dump.”

The 20-year-old pauses for a moment and then continues. “I’m in the scholarship program at Zaman [an exclusive private school in Phnom Penh] because I want to study in America. The education system there is much better than it is in Cambodia. I would be able to improve my English, learn about the culture and meet different people.”

Just a dozen years ago, such a dream would have been unthinkable to Chen. In a developing country like Cambodia, where poverty is rampant, education limited and women’s rights hardly a priority, an orphan like Chen most likely would not have survived, much less dreamed of an education in the U.S. But this is Chen’s reality today. After all, she’s already met First Lady Michelle Obama and the Clintons.

Chen was born in the provinces of Cambodia where life is about subsistence farming and eking out a living as best as one can. When Chen was a little girl, her mother passed away; her father died soon thereafter. Orphaned with her siblings — a brother and two sisters — Chen struggled to survive. After three years doing grueling work at her uncle’s farm, she and her sisters left for Phnom Penh. There, they had no choice but to become scavengers — people who go through the garbage to collect plastic, tin and cardboard to sell to recycling operations — and lived at the infamous Stung Meanchey garbage dump, the largest landfill in the country, as squatters. Chen and her older sister took turns working at the dump, from dawn to twilight, for 50 cents a day, and watching their younger sister.

In 2007, when Chen was 13, she happened to meet the organizers of A New Day Cambodia (ANDC), a Chicago-based residential NGO that takes children out of the dump and into school. The agreement was simple: they would look after her and her sisters, and the girls would study.

“When I arrived at ANDC, it was overwhelming,” remembers Chen. “I had never seen such big buildings. And there was as much food as you wanted to eat. Everything was so clean. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have such an opportunity.”

Chen delved into learning. She studied Khmer in the mornings and English in the afternoons. Apsara, the traditional Khmer dance featuring stylized movements and intricate hand gestures, became her passion. Chen went from being a 13-year-old garbage girl to one who can not only read and write Khmer but speak English fluently and even some basic Turkish, which she learned for a school trip to Istanbul. She was soon awarded a partial scholarship to Zaman International School, one of the most prestigious schools in Cambodia.

In 2011, Chen was invited to perform an apsara dance and give a short speech at the Women in the World Conference, put on by Newsweek and The Daily Beast, in New York City. Her performance, which ended the conference, prompted then Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown to say in her closing remarks, “That last sight — of Sokha Chen dancing — may have been the most moving thing of all.” In addition to meeting Bill and Hillary Clinton and other luminaries (Korean American journalist Juju Chang introduced Chen’s apsara dance performance), Chen was invited to the White House where she met First Lady Michelle Obama. “I couldn’t quite believe it,” she remembers. “Michelle Obama is someone I admire very much.

“The city was amazing. It was so busy, and everyone moved so quickly,” continues Chen. “The trip to America really opened my eyes.” She realized that there was another world out there and that she wanted to study in America. “I am going to work very hard so I can get the funds to study abroad. Besides getting a better quality education than what is available in Cambodia, I will develop the skills and the understanding of how to set up an NGO properly. Living in another culture may be a challenge at first, but I will adapt.”

Most recently, Chen was featured in the 2013 CNN documentary film Girl Rising, helmed by Academy Award-nominated director Richard E. Robbins. From a child bride in Afghanistan to the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, the film features the accomplishments of nine girls and young women from various countries who are breaking through their circumstances. An A-list cast of narrators range from Meryl Streep and Selena Gomez to Freida Pinto and Priyanka Chopra. Chen was the first person selected for the film.

“When they first started to shoot the film, I was very nervous,” admits Chen. “Then I got used to being in front of the camera and it didn’t bother me. It almost started to feel natural.”

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The confidence Chen has gained both from the film and from her education is evident. Today, she speaks to groups and gives speeches at events. She stands proudly and radiates a quiet determination. Hailed as a role model, Chen wants to tell other girls and young women from seemingly insurmountable situations: “Never give up. It is important to keep trying until you succeed. It may be scary at first, so take a friend with you and approach NGOs who may be able to help you. There are people out there, but you have to go and find them.”

Chen is aware that she is very fortunate and has already started to pay it forward by helping other students with English and teaching them apsara. In spite of her accomplishments, she never forgets where she came from, and she is determined to help as many people as she can to break the cycle of poverty.

“Education totally changed my life,” says Chen. “When I was a garbage girl, I didn’t have the money to go to school, not even a local public one, because I would have still needed to buy books and uniforms. Now a whole new life has opened up for me.”

 

–Story by Jody Hanson
Photo courtesy of Brad Callihoo

This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

 

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Struggles of Modern-Day Cambodia According to Filmmaker Kalyanee Mam

Story by Kanara Ty

The Cambodian American experience has often been defined by one event — the Cambodian genocide that took place from the mid- to late-’70s, led by the Khmer Rouge. However, in recent years, there has been a cultural movement amongst 1.5- and second-generation Cambodian Americans to reconcile the past and move forward — namely, through the medium of filmmaking.

Human rights lawyer-turned-filmmaker Kalyanee Mam is one of them.

“We have been so stuck on this  narrative about the Khmer Rouge,” says Mam. “It’s because it’s so exotic to people. It’s easy to sell violence, it’s easy to sell bloodshed. I think we need to take our- selves away from our past and look for- ward to the future. Our future will not be anything unless we do something about our present.”

Mam is taking up that task in her feature directorial debut, A River Changes Course, due for theatrical release in October. The award-winning documentary (it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) follows three individuals — Sari Math, Khieu Mok, and Sav Samourn — whose lives are impacted by some modern-day problems in Cambodia, including deforestation and overfishing due to large land and fishing concessions. While the film takes on a heavy topic, the images of Cambodia presented in the film portray a beautiful country that leave you with a heartfelt and lasting impression. The film may be activist, but the last thing on Mam’s mind is violence.

“I don’t believe in violent ways of changing things,” says Mam. “I believe in slow movements in helping raise people’s consciousness. After [audiences] watched the film, it was on their minds for weeks. The images stayed with them. The images that dig into the subconscious — those are the images that last and continue to inspire people.”

Human rights is something Mam became passionate about after her first trip to Cambodia during the summer of 1998, where she worked as a research intern at the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “The first time I went back, I completely fell in love with the country. It was like a summer romance. It was such a beautiful experience. I grew to understand the country and people more,” says the 36-year-old. “Now it’s no longer a romance. Or a young love. It’s a more mature love. I understand its weaknesses. I understand the corruption. I understand the complexities. I accept Cambodia for everything that it is.”

Initially, Mam chose law school as the vehicle to fight for human rights, but she found it frustrating. “I thought the law would aid me with the mechanisms and tools to assist people who had undergone human rights violations,” she says. “But I felt the law was not broad enough. It was so defined and so specific. There were all these boundaries, rules and regulations. People’s lives are not so restricted. People’s lives are much more complicated.”

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After graduating from UCLA School of Law, Mam worked as a legal consultant for the Mozambique Ministry of Labor, as well as the Iraq Ministry of Justice. But she soon realized that she wanted to do more than just provide legal counsel for human rights victims.

“After I left Iraq, I felt like I left a part of me behind,” she says. “I was still concerned with my friends who were still there. Everyone was trying to escape the country. I was helping them legally, such as seeking asylum. I knew that wasn’t enough.” So Mam decided to make a documentary. She had been interview- ing her friend and her colleague on the down low while she was in Iraq so she had all these transcripts. She eventually turned those interviews into an award-winning documentary short, Between Earth and Sky, which focused on three Iraqi artists.

That led to work on the Academy Award-winning documentary Inside Job, which examined the global financial crisis of 2008, where Mam worked as cinematographer, associate producer, and researcher. And now with A River Changes Course, Mam is embarking on a campaign to screen the film in every single village in Cambodia, with the help from the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

“If every single person in Cambodia sees this film and sees what’s happening to [the subjects], then [they’ll realize] it’s happening to every person in Cambodia. That knowledge [would be] overwhelming,” says Mam. “It’s the first step towards raising consciousness of Cambodians living in Cambodia, and also it empowers them to do something about their situation. If everyone feels empowered to do something, you can imagine the ripple effect from that.”

This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.