Posted: Jun 17, 2014 10:00 AM
Since the crackdowns on Cambodian garment worker protests in January, media attention has been given to these workers' exploitation. What's missing are the stories of these women finding the bravery and ingenuity to stand up to this oppression. Enter: the recent must-see garment worker event, "Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality."
Photo credit: Juanmonino/ E+/ Getty Images

"Cambodian Factory Workers Fainting in Droves" This headline is just two months old, but it's already been (mostly) forgotten, left undiscussed and certainly not connected to our everyday lives. Until now. Canadian photojournalist Heather Stilwell is flipping this reality with a stunning portrayal of ingenious and brave Cambodian women. How? I give you two words: fashion. show.

How did we get here

We often look at stories of horrid working conditions and oppression and don't see ourselves within them. But there's a path to be traced to the Cambodian garment industry and people in the U.S. are a part of it.

Dave Chen, husband, father of two and economics teacher at an international school in Bogotá, Colombia, says, "In 1911, 146 workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. It was one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. It led to improved safety standards and the growth of unions in the U.S."

When working conditions improved in the U.S., so did wages and to keep profitability high, outsourcing was born. Chen explains, "Now with globalization, jobs are outsourced to countries with low wages, weak safety standards and weak workers' rights so that businesses can cut down on costs and make more profit."

Jobs are outsourced to countries with low wages, weak safety standards and weak workers' rights so that businesses can cut down on costs and make more profit.

Taking accountability

Our everyday part in this lies in the clothes and merchandise we buy. Think back to high school economics and the basics of supply and demand. American consumers demand lower prices and factory owners find ways to supply them. These "ways" lie in the poor working conditions and low wages of the workers themselves.

Ken Johnson is an author and expert on culture and conflict studies. He explains how connected we are to these factory workers' conditions, and how we take part in them, oftentimes without even realizing it. Johnson says, "Americans are fueling harsher conditions in factories as we demand cheaper and cheaper goods. This causes businesses to move deeper and deeper into various Third World nations to find 'greener pastures' for their sweat shops and other atrocious operations based off of daily human rights violations. Most Americans never see this side of things. The American news media surely will never report on it. And the average citizen [doesn't see] the delicate interconnectivity transpiring here on a global scale."

H&M and Puma, we're looking at you

But some people are choosing to see these realities, and what they're finding is that they're certainly not hidden. Heather Stilwell is a Canadian photojournalist who has been documenting the Cambodian garment industry since 2012 and what she has observed would — and should — take your breath away.

Stilwell says, "My own introduction to the garment industry here was in 2012, when I saw nearly 100 young women at the hospital after they'd fainted at a factory making clothes for H&M. Around the same time, three young women who made clothes for Puma were shot at a wage protest by a powerful government official. And incidents like these just kept on coming."

What Stilwell saw in 2012 is still a reality today, even more so perhaps. She says, "The low wages mean workers here are unhealthy and weak, and they need to take on long hours of overtime to make ends meet. Because of this, fainting in the factories is so common that it barely even gets a mention anymore."

Beautiful Clothes, Ugly Reality from Heather Stilwell on Vimeo.

Beautiful clothes, ugly reality

Something that hasn't been given a lot of attention is that Cambodian workers are attempting to stand up for themselves. Stilwell says, "Workers are struggling for better conditions, but it's so dangerous — more than 30 workers have been shot and injured at wage protests since 2012, and in January this year five workers were shot dead."

These horrid realities have left Cambodian workers with only one choice: to get creative — ingenious, really — with their protests. Stilwell explains, "Following the crackdowns and the reaction to it, a group of women from the United Sisterhood Alliance decided they wanted a new way to draw attention to the workers' struggle; something different where workers could express for themselves what was really going on. They decided on a fashion show where workers would model the brand-name clothes they make every day in the factories, but they'd do it with a very clear message to the brands — stop the violence, stop the exploitation and pay a decent wage. The show weaved together fashion, dance, music and performance art; at one point men dressed in makeshift 'Joe Fresh' riot gear took to the catwalk before reenacting January's violent crackdown and the death of a worker on stage."

Calculated risks

Take a moment to really take in what these women did. As Stilwell says, every act of defiance has a risk associated with it. Not to mention the work — and pay (Cambodian garment workers only make $80 per month) — they gave up to participate in the show and the time they spent after full shifts to rehearse.

Stilwell says, "Often when workers in Cambodia try to make change through protests or demonstrations, they're met with violence. But this fashion show was a way to get international attention for their struggle in a really positive way. They're not asking people to pity them... they're asking people to really think about the clothes they buy and to ask questions about where they come from and under what conditions ... and they're asking others to join them in the movement to change those conditions for the better... This fashion show was such a smart move by some incredibly strong women."

They're not asking people to pity them... they're asking people to really think about the clothes they buy and to ask questions about where they come from and under what conditions ... and they're asking others to join them in the movement to change those conditions for the better.

What you can do

The risk that these women take— with their safety and their job security — is huge. But our (American) risk in helping? Is purely monetary. The garment industry accounts for 80 percent of Cambodia's total exports and is the lifeline of the country's economy. But the factory workers' wages don't reflect this high demand and their working conditions are truly horrid. First, Stilwell says, simply, "Consumers really need to think about the enormity of this."

Once you've thought about it, do something.

Johnson expresses the need to know what and who we're voting for and engaging in letter writing and other forms of protests just like these Cambodian women do. He says, "What these women are doing is something that all of the world should be engaging in... civil and vocal social protests."

But Chen says we need to bring this issue closer to home — it's already there after all — and start by looking at our shopping lists. He explains, "I heard a quote in a movie about fair trade coffee that people say fair trade products have a higher price to them and I say no, everything has got the same price. It just depends who we want to pay it. So if you pay less for something, someone is paying for it down the line. They are paying the difference and normally they are paying in their lifestyle."

Stilwell agrees that this is the way to be the change you want to see. She says, "Because a lot of the clothes made here are sold where I'm from, I hope I can help communicate what workers are going through to people back home. The brands do their best to keep these things quiet, and I felt I needed to document it because we simply can't ignore the violence and suffering that goes on for the people making these clothes, especially when they're risking their lives to fight against it. I don't think anyone would feel comfortable perpetuating this system if they knew the reality of it, yet we continue to buy clothes without demanding more from the companies who produce them and profit from them."

Share with us!^ What do you think of Stilwell's work? Did you know about the conditions in the Cambodian garment industry? What will you do about it?

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