Dust From A Distant Sun: Cambodia’s Garment Workers

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 4 February 2011

Over 300 garment workers in Cambodia have lost their jobs after striking for a ‘living wage’ in the latest dispute between workers and bosses for better pay and conditions.

So why should you care? Well, next time you’re choosing your out-of-office / weekend attire, remember that certain high street brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M, get some of their clothes from many of the factories involved (according to Labour Behind The Label).

Before my own trip to Cambodia – alongside a reporting crew in December 2010 –  we had been briefed on the country: the cultural dos and don’ts, the weather, and what issues the country faced. One of the things that interested me particularly was that some freedom of speech was slowly being eroded in Cambodian society, and there were people who were becoming more reluctant to take part in strikes or protests.

While doing further research for the trip, a story about Cambodian garment workers clashing with police caught my eye . The workers had gone on strike after the suspension of a union official. I was curious after what we had been told so tried to find out more on my trip…

In Cambodia I had a chat with a local development worker Simorn, who works for DCA/CA’s Joint  Programme* (a partnership between Danish Church Aid and Christian Aid). Simorn said often the companies say no to things like higher wages because they have to pay out money for things like electricity, as Cambodia’s garment industry wasbadly hit by the recession.

Simorn also explained how some garment workers suffer abuse at the hands of management in the factories. Some union workers have tried to negotiate for better conditions but have had little success, and unrest among workers had been worsened by the assassination of one of the most popular and outspoken union leaders,Chea Vichea in 2004.

According to the president of the Cambodian Labour Federation, Ath Thom, the latest dispute over unfair dismissals involves 379 workers from 18 factories. But Ken Loo, the secretary general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said he thought these figures were inflated and that most of the suspended workers had been reinstated.

Ath Thom has appealed to the Prime Minister and sent a letter to the Ministry of Labour about the situation. According to Labour Behind The Label, the government has called on employers to reinstate workers, and the charity says the actions of employers are in contravention of the Cambodian Constitution and Labour Laws.

Now various NGOs and organisations, led by Clean Clothes, are calling for people to contact H&M, Gap and Zara to increase pressure on their suppliers and show their customers that they are committed to ‘freedom of association’ in Cambodia.

It’s your choice how you take action – but do acknowledge that our Cambodian brothers and sisters need our support; support that is warranted, as we, as the consumers of the products they make, play a part in this equation.

Building A Forum For Women In Bangladesh

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 31 January 2011

Discover how women in Bangladesh are learning more about their rights, their purpose and potential power in the home, government and society as a whole. Amy Hall reports…

Traditionally, women in Bangladesh are not encouraged to take part in public life and have less access to education; but increasingly Women’s Forums and savings schemes mean that groups of women have strong voices within their communities.

Christian Aid’s Gen Lomax recently visited Bangladesh and met women involved in groups that work with Christian Aid’s partner organisation CCDB. Perceptions of women’s equality have begun to change since these groups were set up and some Women’s Forums have received training in influencing politics. They have learnt about their rights, and are becoming increasingly demanding towards the local government ensuring that it is more accountable.

The women Gen spoke to found these groups valuable in increasing the voice of women within their community but also in gaining independence as individuals. Mononoma Kunda, 49, is a member of Bashundhara Forum and has been since 1985.

She has received training on rights and advocacy which she put to good use when a powerful neighbour occupied some of her land: “When I joined the forum, I raised my voice and we discussed this problem. We then took this to the local government and they measured the land, and now the man has left!”

Mononoma has not always had this independence though, “My husband did not want me to go to the forum because he wanted me to make meals and stay at home. Sometimes he was very angry. Now he always encourages me. He sees that now I am independent, I earn money and his opinion has changed…We have built faith, love, trust, and now we respect each other. Now I make joint decisions in my family. The forum is our pride.”

Another proud husband is Shakti Kirtoniya. His wife Monika Kirtoniya has received agricultural training via the Sonali Swapna Forum (Golden Dream Forum). “I feel happy that my wife is part of this forum.
Before she just worked at home. But now she has a business and works outside. She earns money which we can spend on our children, on our lives. Now she knows so many things, she has received so much training and is a skilled woman with experience.”

At 16 Nipa Mojumder is already part of the Sonali Swapna Forum. Nipa is not part of the forum, her mother is. Her parents are supportive of her activities and she says that their generation is beginning to change its perceptions. “It is not possible to develop our country if men and women don’t work together… My parent’s generation is very conservative, but now this is changing. They want women to work outside. Previously there were superstitions about everything, now this is changing.”

By organising together women all over the world are raising their voices and becoming active in public life. This empowerment has a positive affect on their families and people around them and seems to be the only way towards sustainable development.

Pakistan Floods: 6 Months On

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 27 January 2011

Amy Hall reports back on what is happening in Pakistan since the massive floods that hit the country six months ago and on what Christian Aid has been doing to help the people affected…

Six months ago Pakistan was hit with flooding which killed 2000 people and left a fifth of the country underwater.

Since then people have been trying to rebuild their communities in a recovery which has been predicted to takeyears. With food prices rising and mass unemployment, life has been hard for the 20 million people affected by the flooding.

Much of the world was slow to pick up on how much devastation the country was facing and some decided to focus on the negativity surrounding how the President was dealing with the situation. Instability caused by the flooding has also led to concerns about the already insecure situation in Pakistan. Despite the slow start however, Christian Aid’s Neill Garvie told us that NGO work in Pakistan has been well coordinated with effective communication mechanisms in place.

Christian Aid has been working with its partners in Pakistan as part of ACT Alliance, a group of 105 organisations working in humanitarian assistance and development worldwide. Christian Aid has raised £4.8million to help the victims of the flooding, and assifrom those funds has reached 15, 460 households so far.

Emily Reilly from Christian Aid visited Pakistan in the months following the floods. She spoke to women affected by the disaster who told her one of most useful things they had received were female specific hygiene kits and mobile medical units with female and male doctors. In the aftermath of the flooding, diseases associated with lack of hygiene became more prevalent as conditions were cramped and many people were living in makeshift shelters by the roadside. Women were suffering from hygine related diseases at a higher rate than men as, because of the conservative culture and lack of facilities, women could not find private spaces in which to wash and keep clean.
In the future, Christian Aid’s partners will keep up their efforts to provide food, shelter, water, sanitation and healthcare to people in the region, whilst also working on disaster risk reduction and helping people to have more secure livelihoods. If this strategy is continued, if Pakistan should face a similar disaster in the future, the devastation will be more manageable.

Christian Aid have also joined in partnership with Muslim Hands, an organisation working to help rebuild a village made up of Hindus, Christians and Muslims, a circumstance unusual in Pakistan. The country is 95% Muslim, and most of the other 5% are Hindus and Christians.

“We’re really excited about this partnership,” Neill Garvie told us. “The aim of this project is about making sure people have somewhere to live, but if another outcome is that people share and participate with each other more across faiths then that’s great.”

“I think situations like this demonstrate that although you can have conflicts between religions, at the end of the day these kinds of disasters affect everyone equally. Whatever background you come from it doesn’t matter and it can bring people together.”

It is hoped that development and disaster reduction projects like this will not only help Pakistan recover from the devastation the flooding has caused, but also help to foster unity amongst its people and lay the foundations for a more stable future.

Bangladesh, And The Aftermath Of Cyclone Aila

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 26 January 2011

Amy Hall finds out from Christian Aid’s Gen Lomax how the nation is getting on after the devastation of Cyclone Aila in May 2009, as well as what help has been provided by our partner organisation, Shushilan…
When Cyclone Aila hit coastal areas of Bangladesh in May 2009 it caused massive devastation. Nearly 300 people were killed and thousands of others displaced in one of Bangladesh’s worst cyclones in recent years.

It is now nearly two years on and the affects are still being felt, including in one of the worst hit areas, the Satkhira district. Many people have had livelihoods disrupted or destroyed but some positive links have been formed as families try and pick up the pieces.

Gen Lomax is a Communications and Development Officer for Christian Aid and has recently visited Bangladesh talking to people in the Satkhira district, one of the areas worst affected by the cyclone. During her trip she learnt about the work of Christian Aid partner organisation Shushilan.

The cyclone, combined with issues like lack of infrastructure and increasing climate change, has had a profound affect on communities. In Bangladesh about 830, 000 hectares of cultivable land has been damaged by saline (salt) water intrusion. This is a problem which has been worsened by the cyclone and is linked to climate change.
However, crabs can survive in this kind of environment so Shushilan has been training people in crab rearing as a more sustainable way of supporting themselves and their families.

Asha (a name meaning hope) is 28. She and her husband, Shonteshi (35), work side by side fattening crabs. As well as helping them provide for their family Asha said that this work has also brought them closer together:
“Before Aila my husband was involved in crab fattening, but now I am involved more too. I feed the crabs, catch them and then sell them in the market.”

Mofazzal Kagzi is 69, in Bangladesh the life expectancy for a man is 67 I am using the figure 66 based on (UNSD, 2008). He is a fisherman but when Cyclone Aila hit his village his pond was destroyed and all his fish escaped. He has been supported in rebuilding his pond replenishing his stocks with fish better adapted to the highly salinated water.

Mofazzal is forward thinking. When asked about the changes he has seen in his lifetime he said, “The positive changes I have seen are in relation to women. Before women never used to go out. Now they go out, they ride bicycles, and they are able to work outside of the home.”

On the more negative side, Mofazzal has also noticed changes to the climate: “Before we used to have six seasons”, he explains. “Everything was going well. But now there are changes. Too much rain, then drought, then heat.”

Climate change continues to be one of the greatest threats the world faces and is particularly putting poor communities in countries like Bangladesh at risk. Scientists have linked more intense cyclones in the Bay of Bengal with warmer seas linked to global temperature rises. Many people, like those Gen met in Bangladesh, depend on the environment to support themselves and it is these people on the front line that are already hit worst.

All’s Fair In Sport

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on January 20 2011

Fairtrade London is upping the pressure on the 2012 Olympics organisers to make the event the fairest games yet…

As 2012 draws frighteningly closer the organisers of the Olympic Games in London are busy organising all the details of what is set to be an exciting event for world sport.

Aside from all the medal winning, security and transport concerns though the organisers need think about how they can make the games as ethical as possible and part of this is using Fairtrade products.Over the coming weeks catering contracts will be awarded for the 2012 Olympics and Fairtrade London want to remind the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and the sponsors (McDonalds, Cadburys and Coca-Cola) of their Fairtrade commitments and highlight the areas where caterers could do more.
There had previously been commitments made to make all tea, coffee, sugar, bananas and chocolate snacks at the games Fairtrade and Fairtrade London want to make sure there is no backtracking on these promises.

The last Olympic games were held in Beijing, China in 2008 and saw over 11, 000 athletes from over 200 national teams compete to be the best in the world at their sport. There were 43 records broken including the unforgettable sight of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt who looked like he was having a chilled out jog in the park as he went down through the finish line.

London is hoping to top Beijing’s event making the Olympics not only more exciting but also fairer and with more concern for the all the people that make it happen.
Take action by signing the open letter telling Olympic organisers and catering companies to “Source Fairtrade: make every Olympic catering purchase a winning one”.

More information at the Fairtrade London website.

Dust From A Distant Sun: Community Spirit And An Explosive Past

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on December 20 2010

Boengsangke Village was abandoned until 1998 when 55 year old Voonthouk, the self described village ‘pioneer’, recreated a forward-thinking version of the village he had grown up in.

Accessible down a very rough road, the village is home to people implicated in all sides of Cambodia’s long and complicated conflict. With his one remaining eye full of pride, Voonthouk, a former government soldier, told us how he had gone in search of landless people dispersed around the countryside after the conflict, and taken them back to Boengsangke.

The village set-up is admired by surrounding villagers, who often ask for advice. Community Empowerment Facilitators from the organisation Life With Dignity (LWD) advise and inspire people into organising and helping fund projects such as the community pond. One third of the costs for the pond were raised by the villagers, and the water benefits more than 100 families.

The community spirit is represented by the large pagoda at the heart of the village, a simple open barn that is beautifully decorated with a sea of stunning homemade bunting and decorations. The villagers worship here, but also meet to make plans for the village, tackle any crises and relax. There are charts, maps and pictures on the wall; outside there are colourful flowers and a peaceful stream.

In many ways Boengsangke is a model village: decisions are made as a group through various committees, including a Women’s Committee and Youth Committee which raises awareness about HIV and marriage rights. The villagers told us that due to regular discussions, the levels of domestic violence, a problem prevalent in Cambodia, are now much lower than in other villages.

We were confronted with the hardships that face much of Cambodia’s, mainly agriculturally reliant population when we visited the household of an industrious widow, a lady admired throughout the village for her hard work and determination. It was clear that this was no easy existence: While she owned the land her small house was built on, she did not own any farmland which, in rural Cambodia, means that a family is unlikely to have a sustainable livelihood.

The widow was brought to tears when she talked about her fears for her children’s future as she gets older and is less able to do so much manual labour. Like many Cambodians, her son has migrated to Thailand to work as a construction worker, while her oldest two daughters help her out in the home. Her youngest daughter was lucky enough to be in school, but it was clear this woman had to do a lot to make this happen. It is currently harvest time and she works as a farm worker all day and through much of the evening. She supplements her income by collecting bamboo to sell from the forest, an activity that is incredibly dangerous in an area littered with land mines.

There are three to five million land mines still undiscovered in Cambodia. We met Sysarang, a 39 year old pig farmer who volunteers as a point of contact for the Cambodian Mine Action Centre. When people find mines in the area, Syssrang leads a specialised team to their location. Boengsangke is surrounded by beautiful open space, but the villagers can’t wonder freely without risk of a land mine exploding.

There is a lot we could learn from the village of Boengsangke in Britain: like the importance of community space, and how important it is to tackle issues of stigma and empowerment to make changes in our own communities.

Poverty, lack of education and access to healthcare mean that many villagers face an uncertain future, while land-mines trap the community in a constant state of fear. I was left with the realisation that any way of life is rarely perfect, but we always have something to learn from each other.

Photos thanks to Hannah Henderson

Dust From A Distant Sun: Looking Ahead

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on November 29 2010

Cambodia is a beautiful country with a rich culture and history blighted by genocide and violence. An incredible 80% of the population is under 30 years old, as many lost parents, grandparents and older siblings when an estimated 1.7 million died under the violent rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.

20 volunteers will be travelling to Cambodia for two weeks to do on-the-ground reporting for Ctrl.Alt.Shift; visiting various local development organisations, finding out about the work they do and the issues they face. The organisations we will be visiting work in a variety of areas, including HIV/AIDS, women and children’s rights, community organising and violence against women.

We will be visiting the capital Phnom Penh and travelling to Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot Cham and the awe inspiring temple Angkor Wat, which has been described as the 9th wonder of the world.

Cambodia descended into violent chaos during the Vietnam War after bombing by the US and a military coup which overthrew the monarch King Norodom Sihanouk. The radical Communist group the Khmer Rouge eventually gained control of the country, led by the notorious Pol Pott. During this time the name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea.

The middle classes, people not of pure Khmer ethnicity, the educated, the disabled, workers for the government and city dwellers were particularly persecuted by the regime, and essentially an entire class was wiped out by this extreme brand of militant communism. Money was abolished and people were forced to live in villages and work in agriculture. Much of the population died of starvation and exhaustion.

Although this tragic history has inevitably had a great effect on the current situation in Cambodia and has shaped the present circumstance of its people, there are still a lot of inspirational stories to be told.

Throughout our trip we will be writing a blog where you can find out more about the kinds of issues we’ll encounter, the people we’ll meet and the things we’ll learn along the way.

CAS @ Feminism In London

From looking around the room a feminist could look like anyone. The women did not fit the stereotypes all too often associated with the feminist movement, ranging right through the age spectrum, gay and straight and of varied ethnicities.

There was also a significant number of men, not coerced there by women but fully engaged in the issues including those sometimes considered women’s domain – like maternity care and problems with the ‘sex industry’.

There was a workshop for men only on ‘Confronting Privilege’; part of a diverse programme that included feminist parenting, women’s internalised prejudice, reproductive and sexual health and workshops specifically for children.

One of the main attraction of the conference for Ctrl.Alt.Shift was the section titled ‘Reports From The Global Women’s Movement’, a panel of feminist activists, experts who have taken part in struggles around the world.

“If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu”, said Chitra Nagarajan in the day’s opening, and this is especially obvious in many places where war, poverty or corruption have caused dramatic imbalances in power.

Nadje Al-Ali started off talking about the Iraqi movement, where she said in many ways there has been regression in women’s equality. Leila Alikaramis told a similar story from Iran but pointed out, “Now women have showed themselves successfully in public life it is not possible to force them back into the private lives of their home.”

M&S Percy the Sexist Pig protest

Tsitsi Matekaire talked about how despite violence against women and forced marriage by kidnap being prevalent in Ethiopia, women are increasingly organising and fighting for their rights.

Katherine Ronderos also spoke about women’s resistance and told the story of the Feminists In Resistance movement in Honduras – an energetic and compelling campaign against the violence of the recent coup in the country.

Katherine also highlighted how inequality in sexual identity, ethnicity, class and gender is always interlinked and should be tackled in intersections instead of in isolation from each other.

Complex issues were also explored by one of the most exhilarating speakers of the day, Marie-Claire Faray-Kele, recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a group who travelled from the UK in solidarity with women who are victims of mass rape, a weapon often used in conflict there.

Marie-Claire painted a damming picture of how the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC by multinational corporations have led to displacement of people and how she thinks the presence of NGOs and the UN is adding to the problems in the country by disempowering women who want to stand up for their own rights.

Every person told an inspiring story of women and men working for gender equality. Cynthia Cockburn, who chaired the section, called on the audience to learn from these struggles of people who are often working in very dangerous and more restrictive situations than our own. As Marie-Claire pointed out “feminism is not just a Western concept.”

Whether in the DRC or on the streets of London many women and men are taking part in the gender equality movement. Lunchtime activism was also squeezed in outside Marks & Spencer in Oxford Circus, as 50 people dressed as ‘Percy the sexist pig’ descended on the store and gave out leaflets calling for a Boycott of the chain after they sub-let one of their buildings (in Bristol) to Hooters.

Feminism in London showed the growth of an inclusive feminist movement in Britain; for around half of the delegates it was their first Feminism in London conference.

The final speaker was Finn Mackay who received a stand ovation for her call to action, but for me movements for equality were summed up by Natasha Walter, who said, “Never stop believing that the future we want will become the present we are living in.”