Hearts and sleeves

Phnom Penh dresses for Casual Friday. Every motodop wears neat khakis, a pressed blue or checked shirt, and a baseball cap. Even the beggars wear (ragged) button-down shirts. Food stands look like Silicon Valley board meetings.
I couldn’t figure this out until I went to the market, where stall after stall sells western high street clothing. Gap, H&M, Royal Robbin, Mothercare, Banana Republic—all mixed in together, and all a dollar or two a garment. I’d never noticed all those ‘Made in Cambodia’ labels before.

Sarom, my motorbike driver, tells me sorrowfully about the good old days, when he worked as a croupier and his wife had a job in a textile factory. Now the government has closed the casinos, due to mafia activity, and the textile factory has shut down too. I had just read an Economist article that reported that the inhouse Director of Human Rights at Reebok had proudly shut down a supplier in Thailand, where the workers had been forced to work a seventy hour week. The article was scornful, as am I. Great job. Now what? Those women will go on social security—except, oops, there isn’t any.

I wish well-meaning woollies would think before campaigning to boycott products made in dollar-a-day factories. Improve conditions, by all means. Regulate child labor, too. But don’t take away families’ livelihoods just because you don’t know what a dollar actually means locally. This isn’t France, where Ministry of Labour inspectors patrol carparks waiting to prosecute employers whose staff work more than 35 hours a week. It’s the real world, the one without safety nets, where ‘cradle to grave’ can be a pretty short trip.

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