Sreylin was always outspoken about the conditions for workers stitching blue jeans and slacks at Zhen Tai factory for the 16 years she’s worked there. But there was a marked change in how her concerns were received.
“In terms of safety, it improved a lot in the last few years,” she says, noting that the factory has installed committees to monitor health and safety, as well as resolve conflicts, with help from Better Factories Cambodia. If she sees a worker in her section injured while cutting fabric and piecing the cloth together, she can personally intervene, taking time away from her work to take them to a health center without any issues from the company. Helping her coworkers is the most rewarding part of the job, she says.
“If there’s any sort of problem, I can report it directly. That helps ensure the safety of everyone.”
Sreylin, now 32, was forced to drop her studies at 16 years old and take up a job. She stayed with her mother when her parents separated, so she sought work at Zhen Tai in the early 2000s in order to support her mother, sister and grandmother. The work was grueling at first, she recalls, and she could hardly tolerate the hours of work per day, standing and bending over the machines in a balmy, noisy factory.
“There was a point after I just joined the factory that I wanted to quit because I never experienced this kind of hardship before,” she says. “But at that time, if I didn’t push through all the way, I wouldn’t be able to support all my family.”
Rather than push against her family’s needs, she started demanding more from the factory. When she first joined the staff, the management largely consisted of Chinese nationals. Sreylin was bothered by the way management treated her peers on the factory line: they were very critical of their work, but also used offensive words that made workers cry regularly. So she started speaking up for her peers. The Khmer Youth Trade Union members noticed her comments.
“At first, I didn’t want to become a union member, but the union representative at the workplace dropped out,” she says, noting that there were very few people who were able to advocate for workers at that time. “They encouraged me, seeing how vocal I was and how I backed up others, so they encouraged me to join.”
She took the initiative and joined the union. During her career as a union activist, she noticed that management began to change their behavior, especially after participating in training sessions. She distinctly recalls when supervisors attended a session combatting discrimination against pregnant and disabled workers, and when they returned, they treated employees with more respect. Sreylin says she also participated in trainings over the years and has seen changes in herself as a result.
“Before, both I and the management were very aggressive in how we talked about certain things. They even slammed the table, and I admit that I slammed the table as well,” she admits. “But after training and after understanding a lot about negotiations, I was able to calm down and understand the social dialogue and how to converse respectfully and reach an agreement together. I could see both sides [myself and the factory management] moving forward.”
Using these negotiation skills, she was able to advocate to management for a lunch stipend for the entire staff. She spent two months lobbying until the union was able to gain an additional 2,000 riel bonus for workers’ daily meals. Sreylin has since become a keen observer of occupational health and safety concerns at Zhen Tai. Preventing disaster has stayed on her mind since a piece of machinery exploded a few years back: luckily all the workers were at lunch, so there were no injuries or fatalities, but the sudden nature of the disaster has made her wary of the emergency exits and whether they are wide enough for hundreds of workers to escape.
She says the factory is currently troubled by water shortages in worker bathrooms and lack of cooling on the factory floor — both serious concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic — and Sreylin has been frustrated that management has not corrected these issues and continues to advocate for change. However, she notes that Zhen Tai Garment management are consistently receptive to the problems she raises, adding she feels empowered that she has been able to help improve her workplace while watching her family grow healthier and happier off her income.
“I will always remember the time when we [my family] shared two packs of instant noodles between the four of us,” Sreylin recalls. “After all this time, my salary has improved and we’re able to live healthier and I’m able to provide for my family. I really like my job because I’m able to understand more about worker rights, and this is partly to do with the union as well.” Despite her relative youth, Sreylin has become a leader both at home and at the factory, through her work ethic and activism.