Empowering women in the Cambodian garment industry

Why it matters

Every garment you buy has been handmade by a garment worker who is an ‘invisible’ part of the supply chain.

Female garment workers employed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia are predominately young and uneducated. Although the industry provides a source of employment for these women, Human Rights Watch highlighted widespread industry exploitation in 2015.

These women are only trained to produce basic garments, therefore the skill level stays very low. Consequently, the workers are under constant pressure to meet high production targets for factories to make a profit. With limited prospects of training, the opportunity for industry progression is slim, therefore the women become trapped in repetitive entry level roles, with no skills or confidence to see a life for themselves beyond the factory walls.

Additionally, unsafe transport, poor working condition, poor health and nutrition has contributed to a volatile environment with violent strikes and protests erupting regularly.

These garment workers are producing garments for Western brands including: H&M, Zara, Gap, Pacific Brands, Kmart, Marks & Spencer, Nike, Levis, Calvin Klein, Adidas and Kipling.

Project overview

QUT researcher Lauren Solomon is working to develop the skills of these ‘invisible’ garment workers, by partnering with Cambodia’s largest garment worker trade union (which represents over 10,000 workers) to deliver a training program to garment workers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The program involves running a series of workshops with trade union staff (all ex factory workers) and local factory representatives over a two-week period in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. With a focus on skills training and personal development, this training aims to increase confidence, capacity and empower participants. Participants will develop transferable skills, which they can teach to other workers, this aims to increase capacity of the entire community. Workers will be provided with safe transport and nutritious food for the duration of the program and will receive a certificate of training upon completion of the program.


QUT Fashion

The fashion discipline offers expertise in design aesthetic, ethical and sustainable practices, and business models that are especially suited to the distinctive climatic, economic, lifestyle and cultural characteristics of Australasia. Students learn applied approaches to creative problem solving and design thinking, within a project-oriented curriculum. This approach to teaching is extremely beneficial for this project as participants gain transferable critical and creative thinking skills which will increase local capacity and be applied to their own local community.

Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU)

FTU was the first independent union within the garment industry in Cambodia (Arnold and Shih, 2010). Since forming in 1996, the union has suffered from “acts of violence and harassment” (International Labor Office, 2010, 87) and in 2004, the President Chea Vichea was murdered. Despite these challenges, the FTU has become the largest trade union for Cambodian garment workers, fighting to protect workers rights for over ten thousand members.