Sok Phalla, her hair in a high plait, sipped sugarcane juice on the street shortly after seeing the prime minister speak on Wednesday. Her pregnant belly swelled under a grey and pink floral dress – she’s due to give birth to her second child, a baby boy, before the month is out.
At one of countless speeches before crowds of garment workers, Prime Minister Hun Sen in Takhmao had handed out envelopes to workers, stamped in blue Khmer script, containing $5 – or $200 for those who were pregnant. For Phalla, 27, it was almost equal to her entire salary for the month.
With a smile hinting at the irony, Phalla said she spends her days sewing wallets and handbags to be sold in the West. She’s seen their price – $1,000. “It’s crazy,” she said.
Like hundreds of thousands of women across Cambodia, Phalla is employed on the garment factory floor, working 7am until 6pm. She earns roughly the same as her husband, a security guard, on $250 a month, but also bears all of the domestic load – working an extra two unpaid hours on cooking and cleaning and caring for their son. “He sometimes looks after our child,” she noted.
As gender pay disparity grows despite more Cambodian women entering the workforce, the government has been upping the handouts to women – especially to mothers – ahead of the July national election.
But experts, and women themselves, indicate a more fundamental shift is needed if women are to reach pay parity and gain financial independence from the men in their lives.
A new report from Better Factories Cambodia yesterday found that the majority of factories do not promote women to supervisor positions, which can in turn lead to women experiencing sexual and verbal harassment in the workplace.
Gender experts say that harassment is one of the key factors keeping women out of formal work spaces, pushing them into the informal economy and into more financially precarious
On top of that, Cambodian stereotypes about women’s work and an expectation that men will be the breadwinners often leaves them at the mercy of their husbands, or adrift when the male presence – and the financial stability it brings – disappears.
Like Phalla, Meach Ngib, 32, is also expecting a baby boy next month. Unlike Phalla, Ngib was unable to get the $200 from Hun Sen. And she could have used it. Her factory stopped paying her – and hundreds of others – in November amid financial setbacks.
Her husband’s meagre construction salary isn’t enough to cover their living expenses, and she’s resorted to borrowing from her sister to pay the rent and from other relatives in order to make monthly pre-natal medical appointments.
“It makes us feel very bad and hopeless, because the debt gets deeper,” she said, adding she can’t afford extra classes for her 8-year-old son.
“Before, we could buy something to eat, but now, even if we are hungry, we cannot buy it.”
Despite the government’s recent handouts to women – a baby bonus and $50 to counter malnutrition, among others – Ngib’s unemployment now means that she will be unable to access the promised free health care for the delivery of her baby.
At a sister factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, workers are also striking. Among them is Pheng Chamroeun, 32, a pink-checked shirt stretched across her middle. She too is pregnant, and has been working at the factory since she was 17.
Her husband doesn’t earn much as a truck driver, so the earning burden falls to her. But she’s unlikely to find other work before she gives birth in July.
“No factory will accept the ones who are pregnant women, because when we work for them, they think we cannot work fully,” she said.
Theresa de Langis, an associate professor at the American University of Phnom Penh, specialising in gender and development, said in an email that feminist scholars “have long noted that women’s labor is not simply ‘cheap,’ but intentionally cheapened”.
That was especially the case in developing countries like Cambodia, which depend on women’s labour to “bring an economy into the globalised market”, she added.
“Manufacturers will drift from country to country to find the lowest bidder in terms of women’s wages, which results in depressing women’s economic value,” she said, noting shifts from the Philippines to Cambodia and to Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“In each case, women, most often overworked and underpaid, have underpinned the economic resurgence of the country,” she said.
She said the reason such practices are “so universally accepted (even assumed) is tied to universal sexism”.
Yesterday’s BFC report, which assessed 395 factories between May 2016 and April 2017, found that 15 percent of employers did not pay workers correctly for maternity leave, and 38 percent did not allow paid time off for breastfeeding, as required by law.
While the report found just two factories where sexual harassment occurred, it noted that due to the sensitivity of the topic and the methods of information gathering, it may have been drastically underreported.
BFC notes another study by Care International suggesting as many as one in three workers was sexually harassed on the factory floor. BFC found workers had been bullied, harassed and subjected to humiliating treatment at almost 50 factories, or 12 percent.
Yong Srey Seang, who works alongside Ngib in Takhmao, said she was threatened by factory staff to work longer shifts.
“This factory punishes the workers to work extra hours, even if they do not want to,” she said, adding that she was told if she rejected overtime work three times, she would be fired.
Rodrigo Montero, gender specialist at the United Nations Development Programme, highlighted that, apart from “social and family stigma against women, sexual harassment at workplace is also an issue that undermines women’s participation in formal economy”.
Labour undertaken by women “is more likely to be insecure, lower-paid, undervalued and unpaid” he said in an email, adding that “women have more barriers than men to access to economic assets such as land”.
There was also a difference in how men and women spent their money: “[W]hen women get an income and are economically empowered, they are more likely than men to invest that money in the welfare of their children and families. Men – unlike women – also use the money they get on themselves and their own entertainment.”
Meanwhile, the gender wage gap appears to be increasing, although the Ministry of Women’s Affairs notes more research needs to be done, with a study planned for this year. But Cambodia Development Resource Institute research from 2015 shows that the gender wage gap was “exacerbated” between 2004 and 2014. In 2004, Cambodian women were earning 92 percent of men’s wages. A decade later, that dropped to just 83 percent.
One industry under scrutiny is construction work, where men routinely earn more than their female co-workers. A study from Care International says female construction workers earn $3 to $5 per day, compared to men’s earnings of between $5 and $7.
One capital construction worker, Seang Sareth, migrated from Kampong Cham and appeared unfazed by the disparity. Her colleague earning $7, she said, had electrical skills, but men who had roughly the same role as her – collecting garbage and cleaning up cement – still took home $6 per day, compared to her $5.
“It’s not heavy labour. This is just how the company pays,” she said.
“We are poor, we have lots of struggles, and it is hard,” she continued, adding her two children, aged 13 and 17, had to drop out of school because she and her husband couldn’t afford it.
In rural Kandal, Chhorn Sotum, 50, knows the feeling of not being able to send her children to school. A mango farmer alongside her husband, she brings in about $200 per month, but her husband also works as a security guard – an option not easily accessible to women due to its hours and perceived danger – bringing in an extra $200. He pockets $50 for himself to spend on drinking and smoking, and the rest goes to their family of eight.
While Sotum, like countless other Cambodian women, thought marriage was key to financial security, she was thrown into financial distress when her husband left her for a five-year period to have an affair with another woman.
“Ninety-nine percent of the women rely on the husband,” she said, noting that the loss of a breadwinner can leave women in dire straits.
“They cannot survive without him. The husband can give us life, but he can finish our life also, because we are illiterate – this is the most important point.”
When her husband left, she was in debt after several of the pigs she was raising died. She had also just recently given birth to their sixth child – a young boy whom she now scolds for climbing trees. One of her older children had to quit school, she explained through tears.
“I do not want to recall this. It reminds me of the old things. He was only 13, he had to quit school and go to the rubber plantation,” she says.
When men had affairs, “we start to consider this is our karma, so we have to suffer it”, she explained. “The one who gets a good husband, has good karma.”
She said she desperately hopes her daughter, a bright student getting top marks in grade 8, will be able to continue studying.
“The woman becomes strong when she has education and skills,” she said.
“For women’s rights, we only have tomorrow”, Sotum noted on Wednesday, the day before International Women’s Day, “while the husband has 364 days”.
Women whose husbands passed away also found themselves doing informal work. Huoch Yav, 60, walks for hours each day with a basket perched on her head, selling bamboo cylinders packed with rice to passersby for 2,000 riel apiece.
“My husband died 16 years ago . . . living without him is very, very difficult,” she said, adding they had seven children together and his salary provided 90 percent of the family income.
In a concrete warren in Phnom Penh, Ouy Leng, 78, sells cigarettes and crisps to fund her diabetes medication. Her husband died under the Khmer Rouge. She used to work as a cook for a Chinese businessman.
“I earned very, very little,” she said. Now, permanently hunched and sick with chronic illness, she makes roughly $1 a day selling sweets from her home.
“The men are responsible for the money because the women must raise the children,” she said. “We are the ones who give birth to them, so it falls to us to raise them.”
The considerable amounts of unpaid labour women performed, such as caring for children and relatives, needed recognition, said de Langis, the gender and development expert.
“Women’s value and economic contributions must be recognised at all levels, not only in symbolic terms through holidays like International Women’s Day, but also in hard cash,” she continued, adding that the way women tended to spend their money – on the education of their children – helped break the cycle of poverty.
“The root cause of this problem is gender discrimination: women’s work is undervalued in the same way that women socially are too often treated as second-class citizens to their male counterparts – easily replaced, assumed as exploitable, too often invisible as [to] what counts as valuable.”
Sotum, however, put her situation more succinctly.
“My life is full of suffering . . . For the women in Cambodia, it’s very fing difficult.”