12 March 2013.
Phnom Penh – As an ear shattering whistle blows, 400 young men and women immediately stand to attention with hands by their side. Cambodian pop music suddenly blares and a loud speaker instructs the masses “Moi, Pii, Bai” (“one, two, three”). The crowd joins the chant with enthusiastic fervour. A middle-aged gentleman facing the crowd animatedly leads the movements: hands on hips, squats, air kicks, knees up, arms up, stretch, turn around, punch the air. “Moi, Pii, Bai” is shouted after each cycle. Intense concentration is painted on the faces of the crowd, but every once in a while, they unwittingly break into a giggle.
This is not your typical aerobics class. The 400 participants are Cambodian garment workers, the location a factory that processes denim for Levi Strauss & Co. on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, and the lead instructor is Mr Kimna Chhay, the owner and manager of the Kimna Dry Process factory.
The export garment industry in Cambodia is more competitive than ever before. The number of export factories has reached 420, with 80 new factories opening their doors in 2012. As orders swarm into factories, the rush to produce high-quality products within tight deadlines while keeping one step ahead of numerous competitors creates an increasingly intense environment for factories. In the midst of the industry’s rapid growth, reports of workers fainting in factories have caused concerns about workers’ welfare.
In July 2012, the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) launched the “One Change” Campaign to combat fainting in factories. The campaign asks factories to make at least one change from a list of eighteen changes especially targeted to alleviate causes of fainting, such as poor worker nutrition, mass psychogenic illness, fatigue, overwork and heat stress.
Kimna Dry Process is one of the more than 40 factories recognized by the campaign for having made changes, with another 20 or so on their way. In an industry where the majority of factories are Chinese or Korean owned, Kimna Dry Process is unusual in that it has a Cambodian owner. Even more unusual is that in an industry where 90% of the workers are female, 80% of Kimna’s workers are men.
Kimna says his factory has never had a fainting, and he wants to ensure that it stays that way. This is why he has enlisted his factory in the One Change Campaign. His factory has taken on two of the recommended changes: training and familiarizing workers and supervisors with a recommended fainting response and two paid exercise breaks—at 9am and again at 3pm—in order to reinvigorate workers, combat fatigue and alleviate the monotony of tasks that can lead to mass psychogenic illness.
“We started the exercise programme as a way to keep our workers happy. When they move their body it can help their productivity and their health. When they get fresh through exercise, they have other energy,” says Kimna Chhay.
He continued: “I think activities such as the exercise programme can prevent problems and even strikes because it creates harmony. It’s fun for them and even for me. I’ve observed that everyone seems happy when they hear the ringing and know that it is exercise time.”
In addition to the factory’s exercise programme, Kimna says that he tries to prioritize the well-being of his workers by minimizing overtime work and by keeping the factory temperature low.
Twenty-six year old Ms Cheng Khron has worked at Kimna Dry Process for five months. “When we first starting doing the exercises, I felt that it was very strange. But now I think it is good. Afterwards, I feel refreshed and am willing to work.”
Cheng Khron makes the point that exercise is far from commonplace among Cambodians: “I think sometimes people in Phnom Penh know about exercise, but in the countryside there is not really any exercise, so this is new for us.”
When visiting her three brothers and four sisters in Kampong Thom, Khron showed them the exercise moves that she learned in the factory. “They thought I was very strange, but then when I showed my sister the moves she followed me and now she does it herself”.
Khron’s colleague, Mr Hak Cheang (30), has worked in Kimna for four years and also enjoys the factory’s exercise programme. He said: “I’m very happy that the company offers us the time to exercise. I think that other factories should do it as well. I feel that exercise is good for me.”
Cheang’s wife is pregnant with their first child. He is hoping that they will soon have a son. “Before this programme, I knew nothing about exercise, but I now understand that it’s important. Garment workers don’t usually take care of their health, not like in this factory. I will educate my child about exercise so that they will be stronger.”
The One Change Campaign is supported by Levi Strauss & Co., GAP, H&M, PVH, American Eagle, the Walt Disney Company, the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc. and QMI Industrial Co. Ltd.
Bril Lacno, of Levi Strauss & Co. says: “The One Change Campaign provides a menu of actions, from which suppliers can choose and implement, and positively impact workers’ well-being. Hopefully, the success of adopting a One Change action brings a motivation for factories to implement another action, and more actions to improve factory conditions and workers’ well-being.”
For further details on the One Change Campaign, please email [email protected]