Koh Dach and the Death of Cambodia’s Cottage Industries
The flat-bottomed rust bucket ferry groans as it hits a sandbar. The boat lurches. Passengers gasp. I grab the rail and pray. The boat rights itself. No bikes have toppled.
The bow runs aground in a flooded banana plantation. Muddy Mekong laps unripe fruit. The gate drops. I get on my little Honda motorbike and roll onto a pothole-riddled track. Emaciated white cattle graze on tufts of grass while naked children splash in a nearby puddle. As I shift gears, a woman runs after me with an armload of silk. “Hey mister!” she screams. “Hey mister! You buy scarf?”
Koh Dach is a small Mekong River island situated fifteen kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh. With the exception of old motorbikes and the odd electric light, Koh Dach is a world away from the choking urban bustle mushrooming downstream. The half-hour trip to the island is a trip into the past, a journey to a world before concrete, “progress,” and industry. Tranquil Koh Dach, however, is not an oasis of tradition: while the majority of Cambodians have benefited from the past decade’s economic boom, Koh Dach residents have seen their fortunes dwindle.
In the dry season, the small sandy beach on Koh Dach’s north shore is a favourite picnic getaway for city dwellers. In the rainy season, the beach disappears and so do the visitors. Then, in the shadows cast by the island’s big stilted houses, you’ll find potters, woodcarvers, and dozens upon dozens of weavers working their ancient looms. Strands of colour and gold stretched on wooden frames. Thread spun on inverted bicycles. Then a woman working the loom, fast, unthinking, brilliant patterns emerging from the patterns of her hands’ history.
The meagre income Koh Dach residents generate from their cottage industries is supplemented by sustenance farming: nearly every household sports a small family plot brimming with broad-leafed banana plants, lanky papaya trees, and brilliant shimmering green rice paddies. At the time of writing, however, many of these tiny plantations have been destroyed by the floodwaters that are currently ravaging Cambodia’s countryside.
Like her parents and grandparents and all the generations that came before her, Souvoen, 44, has spent her whole life weaving underneath her raised house. At first she is quiet and withdrawn, wary of me and my questions. When I ask Souvoen about her family, a smile creeps across her face; a smile that quickly disappears when she contemplates the future of her community. Souvoen works the family’s three looms with two of her four children: the other two work in garment factories in Phnom Penh. Souvoen claims that the economic boom transforming the nearby capital has not benefitted Koh Dach in the slightest. In fact, she sees a direct correlation between Phnom Penh’s growth and the decline of her community. “Life is not getting any better,” Souvoen says. “It is getting worse. The government built us a new road and high school, but that is all the help it has given us. We might have big houses here, but the people of Koh Dach are very poor. Today, some children go to universities, but there is no guarantee that they will get good jobs. When people from Koh Dach go to the city, they usually end up working in garment factories.”
Even when discussing his dwindling fortunes, soft-spoken Sam Ath, 39, wears a gentle smile. His wife, caressing a small white puppy, watches us from a hammock while frantic hens dart around our feet. Somewhere behind their house a hoarse rooster crows incessantly, a grating sound that does not disturb the little grey-brown kitten napping on the bench of one of the family’s two looms.
Sam Ath’s family lives a hand-to-mouth existence, barely making ends meet between weaving and the produce of their small plantation. A decade ago, weaving was a profitable business: the family lived in comfort. Since 1999, however, the cost of raw materials (i.e. cotton, silk, etc.) has continued to rise while the price paid by Phnom Penh merchants for textiles, scarves, and sarongs hasn’t changed. While the family’s output remains steady (two people working two looms can create a maximum of two garments per day), the volume of products purchased by merchants has been declining in recent years: Sam Ath’s small wooden home is stuffed with unsold sarongs and scarves. When I ask Sam Ath if he would like to see his children learn the art of weaving, his answer is an adamant “no.” Every dollar he saves goes towards his children’s education: his son is currently pursuing a medical degree in the capital while his teenage daughter devotes herself fulltime to completing high school. A way of life that has supported Sam Ath’s family for generations is no longer viable—he is the last in line of a family of weavers that dates back to the furthest reaches of remembered history. I ask Sam Ath if there is any way to save Koh Dach’s weaving industry. “NGOs could help,” he says. “The government could help. They could support the community. They could expand our market. I don’t think this will happen.” The only NGO operating on Koh Dach provides two HIV-positive families with money and food, support which Koh Dach’s increasingly impoverished population resents.
Flashing a smile full of gold and silver fillings, Chhoen Sam Ang, 60, proudly boasts that she has never made the short trip to the capital city. She has only left her Koh Dach home once: in 1975, like most of the island’s residents, Chhoen Sam Ang was forced to move to the mainland to farm rice in a Khmer Rouge labour camp. She is not bitter about this. At the time, Koh Dach was a warzone: as early as 1971, Khmer Rouge forces were engaging the government on the island. When the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Chhoen Sam Ang returned to Koh Dach. She hasn’t left since.
A half-dozen children run around Chhoen Sam Ang’s single loom. Chickens, pigs, and cattle rest in the shade of broad-leafed banana plants. A pretty young neighbour scrutinizes me while breastfeeding an infant. Chhoen Sam Ang tells me that with the exception of a mentally challenged son, those of her seven children that don’t work in Phnom Penh’s garment factories weave on the island. She worries about their future. “Weaving used to be profitable,” she says. “Now, even with selling bananas from my plantation, I don’t always have enough money to buy food. I weave every day. I buy materials, work and work. It takes a day or two to finish a sarong. And still, sometimes, there are no merchants willing to buy. Then I lose. When I lose, I take loans from the bank. I cannot pay the bank. My debt grows. This is happening to everyone here.” I glance at her loom. The blue, gold, and pink sarong she is working on is exquisitely detailed. In Canada, I am sure, it would fetch more than ten times the pittance merchants pay for her work.
As far back as she can remember, Chhoen Sam Ang’s family has been weaving. She doesn’t want to see her grandchildren follow in her footsteps. “There is no future in weaving,” she says. “In Cambodia, the rich get richer; the poor get poorer. All the young people are leaving Koh Dach. Maybe my grandchildren will be able to survive working in Phnom Penh’s garment factories.”
As massive hangar-like garment factories spring up around the country, it seems that the demand for hand-woven textiles is disappearing. To its international clients, the Cambodian government boasts having garment factories that are clean, modern, and safe, a boast which (with the exception of several recent mass faintings) is more or less true. While working conditions are decent, ethical production in Cambodia does not extend to workers’ salaries. In 2010, tens of thousands of garment workers went on strike to protest what they deemed an insufficient increase in their minimum wage. While unions had demanded an increase from $50 to $93 USD per month, the government raised minimum wages to $61. The protests, which were violently suppressed by the police, achieved nothing. Thus, by keeping production costs extremely low, Cambodia’s garment factories have been able to secure multimillion dollar contracts from international clothing retailers such as the GAP, Levi’s, and H&M.
While garment manufacturing is one of the three major pillars supporting Cambodia’s recent economic boom (the other two are agricultural exports and tourism), a handful of factory owners and government officials disproportionally benefit from this multibillion dollar industry. For the 350,000 predominately young women working these factories’ sewing machines and steam presses six days a week, their prospects will never surpass the sixty-odd dollars they make each month. Working from eight in the morning to six at night, a single garment worker produces approximately one hundred shirts, jeans, sweaters, shorts, or panties a day. By contrast, a weaver on Koh Dach, waking up at dawn and taking occasional breaks to chat with visiting neighbours, can make the same living producing a single garment in one or two days. But, as there are no longer any guarantees that merchants will buy their handmade products, the children of Koh Dach’s weavers are increasingly exchanging the slow lonely clacking whoosh of the loom for the dizzying crowded mechanized whirl of the factory in order to secure a stable income.
“Even with my children working in garment factories, I still don’t want to visit Phnom Penh,” Chhoen Sam Ang says towards the end of our interview. “And why should I? There is nothing for me there.”