The Politics of Shopping

Neat piles of shirts with familiar labels

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—Cham Roeun folds eggplant- and lime-colored tank tops into tiny square units, one after another, until they are stacked in cotton-blend towers. Their labels say XL or L, but they are all the same size: tiny, tiny, tiny. At Psah Toul Tom Poung in Phnom Penh—known to Western expatriates and tourists as the Russian Market—38-year-old Roeun hawks seconds from nearby garment factories, bought, she says, through a broker. Hers are frocks with stitching errors or missing buttons or one sleeve slightly longer than the other. There are men’s Hawaiian shirts and women’s button-down tops and zip-up sweaters, stuff destined for the Gap or Old Navy or Banana Republic if it hadn’t been rerouted out the back door to this market. Roeun’s stand is surrounded by dozens of similar stalls administered by women who fold and refold hundreds of shirts all day long. Many of their goods have no imperfections at all, of course.

Roeun’s clothes are all First World generic, the kind of vestments ubiquitous in mid- or low-level administrative jobs in offices scattered across the United States. But next year, when 30-year-old garment quotas governing shipments from China to the United States are lifted and China’s garment industry explodes as predicted, it will overtake many of the region’s current facilities in places like Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh, and here in Cambodia. Roeun and her garment-selling peers might well be sitting in their dusty wooden stalls, their shelves as empty as a desert lake.

To complicate matters further, Cambodia recently joined the World Trade Organization, which places them smack in the middle of global trade. Cambodia is competing with Hong Kong, France, China, and India. Can this struggling country compete with such behemoths? It doesn’t take a Stiglitz to figure it out. Unless the garment industry restructures its manufacturing methods by, for example, lowering wages and labor standards (and ridding the industry of the rabid corruption that currently consumes it), it will surely fail. Already last year, 18 factories have reportedly closed. Minnie Driver, whose recent touch-down in Cambodia brought worldwide media attention, needs to include on her tour not just the poor factory workers (whose pay here, while low, is significantly better than that in many surrounding countries), but also the western teeny-boppers and office workers who will need to be convinced that ethics matter more than cost when they shop.

The scene at the Russian market

But none of that matters much to Roeun and her garment-stall neighbors. “If we lose our connections,” she says, “it will be a big problem. Maybe we will have to get the clothes from China?” This last statement is, at best, a quixotic question based mostly on the fact that Roeun once visited China and found the people there much nicer than she’d imagined. In any case, she says, she understands nothing of trade quotas or contracts or global economics.

As she folds, her 7-year-old daughter sidles up and props herself up on her mother’s wooden stool. She is one of two daughters that Roeun and her husband, who earns just over $20 a month teaching medical students at the army hospital, have. They need her stall to survive. In Cambodia, the garment industry represents nearly 100 percent of the country’s international trade and a third of the total national economy.

A Westerner approaches the stall and begins holding up the tank tops Roeun has spent the past half-hour folding. She peers at one, discards it onto the neat piles and picks up another. She does this over and over, half a dozen times until the piles, once as uniform as rice paddies, are buried under her slapdash discards. “How much?” she asks Roeun, holding up a tangerine-colored cotton shirt. Her accent is British.

“Two dollars,” Roeun holds up two fingers.

The woman shakes her head. “Too much,” she says. “No. No, that’s too much.” She puts the shirt down.

There is a belief among stall keepers in Cambodia that if you have problems with the first customer, you will have poor sales for the rest of the day. It is nearly noon, and this woman is Roeun’s first customer.

“OK, how much?” Roeun asks her.

“Dollar-fifty,” she says. “Two is too much.”

Cambodia is the only nation in the region that allows the International Labor Organization to monitor and lobby for better working conditions. Here, factories give occasional overtime pay, bathroom breaks, and, at $40 a month * or more, decent pay. In the country’s 155 functional factories, there is ostensibly no child or forced labor—all factors that make Cambodia’s manufacturing costs up to 25 percent higher than China’s. In fact, the Cambodian garment industry was established to serve as a model for similar factories around the world from Mexico and Central America to Bangladesh and India. The real question, however, is whether, beginning in 2005 when the quota system is lifted, American and European consumers will put their ethics above their checkbooks when it comes to shelling out more money for goods made in Cambodia. Because at the end of the day, the real key to success lies not with the International Labor Organization’s ability to create and monitor good working conditions, but in the global marketplace’s willingness to monetarily support such efforts.

Roeun has had her garment stall for three years now. Before this, she sold goods from Vietnam and Thailand, but with resentment growing in Cambodia for their eastern and western neighbors and longtime rivals, Roeun says she eventually couldn’t sell the items—most of which were kitschy plastic goods.

On Jan. 22, Chea Vichea, one of the country’s most beloved activists and founder of the garment industry’s powerful Free Trade Union, was gunned down in broad daylight at a busy intersection in Phnom Penh. More than 15,000 mourners marched at Chea’s funeral. He’d received death threats in the past and had recently emerged from six months in hiding.

Chea’s killing is said by some to have been ordered by unnamed officials from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party because Chea was an outspoken member of the opposition group calling for Hun Sen’s resignation. Roeun, though, won’t comment on this. As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, fear runs deep. “Everyone is scared,” she says, “but what can we do? He was a good man. He cared more for people than for himself. … [But] I cannot talk about democracy in Cambodia. Everyone knows this.”

The British woman holds up the tangerine shirt again. Roeun watches her, one hand atop a pile of men’s dress shirts, the other resting on her daughter’s shoulder. She wears a black chiffon shirt with sheer sleeves and cream-colored embroidery—the kind of shirt you won’t find in the piles before her.

“OK?” the British woman says. “Two dollars is too much. I’ll give you one-fifty.”

Roeun nods once, takes the woman’s money, and folds up the shirt for her. The woman stuffs it into a large plastic bag with the goods she’s purchased from other stalls.

“Sometimes,” Roeun says in Khmer as the woman wanders away, “half of a dollar is a lot to a foreigner.”

Correction, Feb. 19, 2004: This dispatch originally and inaccurately said that Cambodian factories pay $40 per day. The correct figure is $40 per month. (Return to the corrected sentence.)