Moving the needle for Cambodian apparel workers

People ask us: why are you producing in Cambodia? Indeed, Cambodia is not an obvious choice for sustainable fashion. 

Here’s the story of how we ended up producing our beautiful garments in Khmer's Land.

When Samantha and I set out to work together, one of our motives was to make a positive impact on the lives of the people who make our clothes. The Clean Clothes Campaign and the global call for a #fashionrevolution had opened our eyes for the inhumane conditions in which many Asian workers produce the latest fashion at the lowest possible price. 

Samantha started searching production facilities that guaranteed safe and fair working conditions for their employees, and that also accepted to make small quantities. It was easier said than done. With the help of Léa and Mathilde from the Green is the New Black project, we found Fairsew and Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, both located in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Soon, Samantha visited both workshops and conducted an audit to ensure that their values were aligned with ours, and that they could guarantee a safe working environment and a living wage for their workers. Check out the interview with Anneliese Hemly from Fairsew, and the website from French NGO Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant, which branched out with a workshop that first made the school uniforms for the kids they support, and now also contracts work from outside clients, such as The Extra Smile!

What’s the situation for Cambodian apparel workers in general?

Cambodia is one of the fastest-growing economy in the world, with the garment manufacturing as its backbone, accounting for 80% of the country’s export earnings, mainly to the European Union and the United States. It is also the biggest employer in the country, with one million people working in over 600 factories. 

In January 2019, the minimum wage for a garment worker was set at 182 USD per month, which is not sufficient to cover essential needs such as food, water, housing, health care and transportation. This causes poverty for many women and their families, putting them in danger of poor health and premature death. 

Also, most factories are owned by foreign investors, who do not reinvest in the country and take their profits out of the country. 

The impact of The Extra Smile

Our aim is to improve the lives of workers in the fashion industry, by creating decent workplaces. The more jobs that offer a living wage and safe working conditions, the less people will need to endure modern slavery conditions.

Clients who buy our garments, help create these decent workplaces. A knock-on effect is that more children can go to school, instead of doing dangerous and mind-numbing work. And the more decent workplaces we create, the more pressure the big fashion industry will feel to do the same.

That’s how we want to move the needle. We are starting small, but we are thinking big.

We are creating The Extra Smile with lots of great people, including you.

About Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant

Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant is a French NGO whose mission it is to get children out of extreme poverty and guide them towards a skilled, dignified and well-paid job. To fulfill this, six main programmess - adapted to the needs of the children - have been developed: to feed, to care, to protect, to educate, to train for a job, to help the families. Their schools have more than 6,000 children throughout Cambodia. The production of uniforms, formerly manufactured externally, is now handled by their workshop in Phnom Penh: PSE sewing workshop. Mainly staffed by women, the workshop produces more than 18,000 uniforms a year and has developed its own fashion and accessories brand: le cartable de Chanda. The workshop has recently opened to fashion brands and we are proud to be associated with their ethical workshop. Sopharit, workshop manager, is a passionate, open and generous man. He listens to his workers and customers. Our team of three wonderful women (Khayly, Sina and Dara) and Sopharit handle our collection and bring their know-how on each model. All employees of the PSE sewing workshop benefit from a free six-month training program at the PSE vocational training schools. All are above 18, and are paid above the average wage in Cambodia, they have insurance and medical expenses are covered. They work from Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm and rarely or never work on weekends, all in a secure and safe environment.


About Fairsew

Under the leadership of Anneliese Helmy, who has been active in the fashion business for more than 30 years, Fairsew offers impeccable service and demonstrates that our clothes can be made in a way that does not harm the environment or exploit people. Each month, employees receive a fixed salary that is sufficient to cover their living expenses and save money. Employees participate in decision-making and define the goals and aspirations of the team. Subsidized health care is provided, as well as maternity leave, annual leave, and all holidays. English classes are also offered twice a week. Fairsew's mission is to show that it is possible to make clothes and pay employees fairly, based on their skills. The environmental objective of Fairsew is to store and use as much as possible of their waste. Thus, it manufactures yarns from jersey remnants to create scarves and pet toys, develop new products using leftovers from fabrics to make bags, tops or jackets. 70% of our inaugural collection is made at Fairsew. Sopheak, the workshop manager, and her team do a great job where every detail counts. We are proud to entrust our production to this fair and social workshop.


War and peace in Cambodia

Cambodia has a rich and fascinating history, with the foundation of the Khmer Empire at the beginning of the 9th century. The Khmers were animists and believed that spirits inhabited the earth and trees. Later, Hinduism and Buddhism co-existed with traditional beliefs and the rich and powerful built fine temples, such as Angkor Wat.

In 1863, Cambodia became a French protectorate as their king asked the French to protect him from the Thais and the Vietnamese, who had taken turns to invade and exploit the country since the 15th century. Under French rule, the rubber industry developed and roads and railways were built. However, France charged heavy taxes, with Cambodian nationalism taking root as a consequence. During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied Cambodia and declared the country independent in March 1945, which was short-lived as the French took over again in October of the same year.

In 1968 the communists began a civil war, and Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic. To stop communism, the Americans bombed the country to no avail, as the communists captured Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, installing the reign of the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot as their leader. A horrific era began.

 Pol Pot decided that the country should be 100% agricultural and banned all private property. This meant that all urban citizens were forced to move to the countryside and work on the land. Collective farms were set a target to grow three tonnes of rice per hectare. People were forced to work long hours and were given insufficient food. Many fell ill and died from exhaustion and malnutrition.

Religion was banned and people who were caught praying were executed. Family relationships were banned on the grounds that parents exploited their children. The smallest infringement of the rules resulted in execution. People caught foraging for food were executed. People were also executed for being lazy. Anyone who complained got executed.

The Khmer Rouge murdered intellectuals such as people who wore glasses, or those who spoke a foreign language. 

There is no exact figure of how many people were killed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but it is estimated that they were at least 1.5 million, and it may have been as many as 3 million. 

This nightmarish situation ended “thanks” to a war with Vietnam. The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and quickly prevailed. Unfortunately Pol Pot escaped. The Khmer Rouge continued a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese who withdrew from Cambodia in 1989.

The Paris Peace Accord of 1991 dictated that communism was abandoned and elections were held in 1993 with a constitutional monarch. The Khmer Rouge refused to take part in the elections and they continued their guerrilla war. Pol Pot died in 1998 and peace returned to Cambodia.

Three decades of civil war have left a legacy of around five million unexploded landmines. There are around 40,000 amputees, which is one of the highest rates in the world.