Cambodia seeks to uplift workers as it sets up college

Garments factory in Cambodia
Image caption The garment manufacturing sector is one of the biggest employers in Cambodia

This is not school the way many of us would remember it. For starters, heads are not lolling on desks, willing the bell to ring and bring the agony to an end.

Instead the rows of students are bright-eyed, alert and turned out in eye-catching white-and-orange polo shirts.

They respond eagerly to the teacher's prompts and questions, occasionally breaking into good-natured laughter.

The bonhomie is all the more impressive considering this is a Sunday and classes started not long after six in the morning.

But the students are aware that the Garment Factory Supervisors' College offers an opportunity for something rarely seen in Cambodia: career progression.

And these young people - mostly women in their 20s - have willingly given up their weekends for a crash course in subjects like the labour law and occupational health and safety.

'Lot of conflict'

The garment and footwear industry is Cambodia's biggest employer. Almost 400,000 people work in the factories, producing clothes for big names like Gap, Adidas and Marks & Spencer.

Almost all of them are on the lowest pay grade, earning a minimum basic wage of $61 (£38) a month.

Overtime and seniority bonuses can push that into three figures, but until recently there was little chance of workers moving out from behind their sewing machines and into better-paying jobs.

The "us and them" divide between workers and management was stark. With little history of industrialisation before the garment industry took off a decade ago, there was a serious local skills shortage.

So not only were the garment factories largely owned by non-Cambodian companies, but most of the supervisory staff were expatriates as well, brought in from countries like China, Singapore and Bangladesh.

With little in the way of shared language or culture, workplace misunderstandings were frequent and so were the resulting disputes.

"Working across cultures they might have a lot of issues, a lot of conflict," says Nuon Laong.

Usually a factory adviser for the Better Factories Cambodia programme run under the auspices of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Laong indulges in some officially-sanctioned moonlighting as a teacher at the Supervisors' College on Sundays.

"Often problems start from a small issue - but they don't understand each other, and then it becomes a big issue. But if there are local people [working as supervisors] they can understand each other and any problems are going to be smaller."

Ensuring sustainability

Promoting local staff to supervisor status also makes sense for the people without whom Cambodia's garment industry would not exist: the buyers.

The backs of the students' polo shirts bear the names of some of the most familiar global fashion brands - showing their support for the college set up by the ILO.

Image caption The college hopes to provide garment workers with better career opportunities

This is not entirely altruistic. Local staff are less expensive than expats - lowering costs for factories and buyers alike.

But with price pressure always a factor in the garment sector, it is a measure which could ensure the long-term health of the industry in Cambodia.

"To ensure the sustainability of the garment industry, we need Cambodian supervisors to take over the role of the foreigners," says Nov Dara, the Better Factories Cambodia training manager.

"This is the goal for the Cambodian government and the Chinese factory management. It will maintain high productivity, bring better communication and ensure the labour law will be clearly communicated to the workers."

That idea is clearly getting across to the trainees at the college. A supervisor from one nearby factory rattled off a few facts about the labour law as she enjoyed her lunch break.

Morale booster

But perhaps the most important contribution could be to morale on the factory floor.

A recent series of well-publicised mass-fainting incidents has left question marks over Cambodia's hard-won image as a country which guarantees decent working conditions in the garment sector.

The college addresses this by adding pastoral care to the curriculum.

The new supervisors get information about issues ranging from reproductive health to career development, which it is hoped they will pass on to their junior colleagues.

To make the message stick, the facts come wrapped in a music and comedy performance, courtesy of a local performing arts group, which has the audience hooting with laughter and clapping along.

Hundreds of new supervisors will have received training by the time the college finishes its short run of Sunday classes in November.

If they can put what they have learned into practice, they may play an important part in making sure Cambodia's garment industry has a healthy future.

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