“Don’t worry, they won’t be able to copy the design for the backpacks. They won’t even be able to cut straight!” Koky laughed as Sakun quietly expressed concern in Khmer, the local language of Cambodia. The Social Cycles team were the first group of visitors to accept an invitation to not only witness what life was like in this Phnom Penh garment factory, but to get involved and make our own Beekeeper Parade backpacks.
Garments and textiles is a US$5 billion industry in Cambodia and accounts for 16% of the country’s GDP. Reports suggest that 600,000 of the workforce are inside a garment factory. The controversy of poor working conditions has occasionally hit Western headlines as protesters have taken to the streets on occasion in Phnom Penh. In January of 2014, the Cambodian security forces opened fire on protesters, killing five and injuring 60. In the West, we would call that a mass shooting and a terrorist act. I’m not sure what it’s called when it’s your own government.
The workers were asking for the minimum wage to be increased from $80 to $160 per month. The poverty line is considered to be $120 and since October 2015, the wage has been increased to $128. In January of 2016, it increased to $140. Still a far cry from the accepted ‘living wage’. Currently, unions are campaigning to have the wage increased to $177 per month. I haven’t even begun to tell you about the reports of poor worker conditions, mass faintings, unpaid hours and physical abuse. Hence the emergence of an ethical fashion campaign.
So here we were, in a real life Phnom Penh garment factory. The Social Cycles tours aim to scratch the surface of travel and dig a little deeper. Meet real people and learn about the country and culture first hand from local experts, so this was a great opportunity to do just that. Beekeeper Parade backpacks are made only from rescued and donated materials, giving them a new life before landfill. In addition, the proceeds support the education of school children in Cambodia from Baby Tree Projects.
Koky Saly, a truly beautiful and selfless human being, came to Australia as a refugee after being born in a Khmer Rouge prison camp in 1977. He is on a personal mission to give back. To “create products that change the world, do no harm to the environment, nourish and support the people and animals that dwell on our planet, to seek solutions to our environmental crisis, to use business to inspire people to consume less, to do more and BEE MORE and to support BabyTree Projects in its fight for quality education for all children.”
The Social Cycles team arrive, about 15km out of the city amidst dusty back roads in an industrial region of Phnom Penh. Knowing Koky and his ethical values, we knew we weren’t walking into a sweat shop, but I didn’t expect to see such a happy (and small) team of workers in such an open and friendly environment. Sakun, the factory owner, welcomed us with open arms. We were free to roam with cameras and speak to whomever was happy to speak to us. The hospitality of Koky and Sakun was incredible, honest and open.
Before long, we were set to work to create our very own Beekeeper backpacks from scratch. The endless rolls of material were quite daunting, when you know it was destined for landfill. Our acceptance of waste as a culture will be something we learn to regret in time. The team all got to choose an outer fabric and an inner lining. From there we were under careful guidance to cut the shapes required from what seemed like an endless parade of cardboard stencils. The Social Cycles team loved every minute of it. From the intimacy shared by Koky and Sakun, as guests in their place of work, to the first hand experience of creating something practical and amazing from what would have been rubbish.
After spending some time with Sakun, it was great to hear about his experience working for Friends International NGO. His role was to set up and assist in the safe, fair and ethical work practices of the fashion industry. Now he has made the leap to start his own business, yet keep the same ethical fashion values where everybody can benefit. We were all pleased to hear, but not surprised, that Sakun pays his workers well above the minimum wage.
And for good reason, as it wasn’t long before we realized how hard this work was! Our team was around the table, carefully cutting our materials around a stencil, under the careful eye of Sakun and colleagues. I must have cut at least 30 pieces before being inspected close enough because, as it turns out, Koky was right…. We really can’t cut straight!
The Beekeeper Parade garment factory experience is part of the two week Social Cycles tour around Cambodia. If you would like to be a part of this unique opportunity, you can learn about and book the next tour here. If you would like to purchase your own Beekeeper Parade backpack online, then click here.