Today I’m wearing a Tommy shirt that I bought in Toronto for about 28 dollars. Think I paid about half price. Nice cotton. I like the color and it fits well. I think I look pretty hot in it. For a million bucks I couldn’t tell you where it was made though. I have no idea. I’m a little irresponsible that way. Probably Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Haiti or maybe Cambodia.

I was sitting in the Salon lounge at Phnom Penh International airport this past week and sat down next to an older gentleman who looked like he’d done this all before. Writing notes on a pad of paper with a coffee nearby and his big brown leather bag taking over the lounge table, I squeezed in across from him. Business class no doubt. I was there for the complimentary bottles of water. He spoke first. “Nice day to travel. Where’s home for you?” He was a nice guy with a gentle, friendly approach.

He told me about his business in Cambodia. He’s 52% owner. Not a bad share it seems to me. A paper factory. I asked him if it was lucrative. He laughed and said, “Not that lucrative.” He paused. “Actually until we sold the land.” Land is a hot issue right now in Cambodia and has been for some time. Hernando DeSoto says, in The Mystery of Capital, it’s the way a country will raise itself out of poverty of all kinds. Through private property. Without it you end up with an extra legal economy where locals hide their money under mattresses etc. and keep it outside of the system. It’s all about lack of trust. And so they don’t invest.  They don’t put their money in the bank and that leads to little or no personal collateral to leverage. Property is out. No growth. Little security.  According to DeSoto this has huge systemic implications when it comes to the eradication of extreme poverty.

Shortly after that it came out that he also owned a garment factory in Phnom Penh. Kandal province. The day earlier I had driven through the area in a Tuk Tuk on my way to one of the poorest projects I have ever seen. A small village of about 200 families that cannot work the land they back onto because it is privately owned and empty. No rice. No animals. Nothing. Except for maybe some field rats, small green adders and a whole lot of mosquito laden, stagnant water. It makes me angry. All of it. Very little dignity. Very little opportunity. The gap grows. The middle class wanes and the financially poor seem to grow poorer in many respects.

The gates to the factories are high and painted usually in pastel colors, a lot like Joe Fresh clothing. Buildings that have a lot of fans high up near the roofs, with large walls around the compounds. They don’t want anyone in or out. Except for the workers at starting, breaks and quitting times. I get why they’re called sweatshops.

I started to ask him lots of questions. Maybe he thought I was a journalist. I doubt it though. I don’t wear the right kind of glasses. We talked about human rights, living wages, factory conditions and the way an economy grows. He had plenty of good points to make and by the sound of it pays more than twice the average wage in the country.  That’s about 60 dollars a month by the way. Not a living wage anywhere. Not even close to average.

The young women who work for his outfit get three meals a day and are able to stay on site for 3 dollars a week. Sounds like a decent arrangement. For an emerging economy.

He talked about economic growth. How people need jobs and that “developing countries” like Cambodia need industries that don’t require a sophisticated labor force. “Anyone can sew,” he said. Without a doubt it sounds like a good argument. Sounds plausible. Sounds like it makes a lot of sense.

There’s something I still don’t trust about it all though. Sweatshops they are, without a doubt, but are they fair? Are they necessary? Are they really a part of a growing economy? Or are we just merely justifying our own desires at the expense of the other. Sweat is not the issue. No one’s against hard work. Especially Cambodians. It’s slavery, hunger, a disregard for human rights, gender inequality, malnutrition and food insecurity that I reject on every level. Most of these issues are solvable.

I don’t know what his name was, but he was a nice older Australian man who offered to get me into the business lounge in Hong Kong after we got off of our flight. Nice gesture. Wonder where his clothes are manufactured.

First thing I did when I got to a washroom on the plane was to check where my shirt was made.


Now what do I do?

DP – Nov 2013