Hard-pressed garment worker demonstrations in Cambodia and Bangladesh veered into deadly riots in Cambodia after two weeks of relatively peaceful strikes and marches over conditions and pay.
In Cambodia, the protests have been led by the opposition National Rescue Party.
Last April, a garment workers’ building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing 1,133 people. International brands that had items made there scrambled to deal with the bad public exposure it brought them, considering the pittance paid to the workers.
There are many such buildings in Bangladesh on the verge of disintegrating with people inside them. The Rana plaza collapse was the country’s worst industrial accident, but they happen regularly – deadly fires, too. Yet little has been done to change things.
Cambodia and Bangladesh subsist on textile-related employment. It provides more than four in every ten jobs, more than three quarters of their total exports. Ninety percent of the workers are women. The rest include children, in spite of laws against child labour. The average adult monthly wage is the equivalent of around 50 euros; in China today, the average is above 100 euros.
Work days can be as long as 15 hours; some may work seven days a week.
Many of the clothing and shoe factories run on Chinese capital, from businesses that have gradually had to increase what they pay for labour at home and then farmed the work out to neighbouring countries, to do it more cheaply.
Profits float to the top, and companies around the world – notably in Europe and the US – have their merchandise made under these conditions.
A typical item a shopper buys for 29 euros, say, will put just 18 cents in the pocket of the Cambodian or Bangladeshi who put it together.
The deadly conditions in Dhaka of April 2013 implicated some 29 big international names. Those participating in a compensation fund number but three.
Some Western consumers wearing these labels briefly felt their consciences pricked.
Gap, Adidas, Nike, Puma and Wal-Mart are among the big brands that outsource manufacturing to southern Asia. As sewing machines have stalled, their angry operators face batons and rifles, but it may be safer than working in one of those factories.