At Phnom Penh’s Zhen Tai Garment factory – amid conversations between workers, unions, and factory management – sits Sophea, a woman who has served in human resources for her entire 21-year career and now works as Zhen Tai’s general manager.
Her job has required her to develop keen listening skills in order to balance competing interests. Certainly, this challenge hasn’t always been easy. Speaking with Better Factories Cambodia, she reflected on her position, conceding, “My interactions with workers had their fair share of challenges in the past. I would sometimes be harsh to the workers, and I frequently had conflicts with union employees who I felt were not taking workers’ considerations seriously. This was true especially in relation to the resignation of women workers after they gave birth.”
Recently, Sophea started taking a softer approach and listening closely to workers, a development she partially attributes to a three-day training program called ‘Female Leadership’ provided by Better Factories Cambodia. The program looks to strengthen the skills of Performance Improvement Consultative Committees (PICC), which are factory committees that seek to resolve and improve relations between worker representatives and factory management via effective social dialogue techniques. The training encourages and prepares PICC members to better represent and communicate with women workers, and to contribute individually and collectively toward the empowerment of women workers in their factories. Sophea was among the 70 women from 19 different factories who attended the training.
She began to understand that many female workers resigned to take care of their newborn babies, or due to personal problems or conflicts with their supervisors, and by listening to workers’ voices, she learned to identify why this was happening. Because of this experience, Sophea began to be more proactive in providing consultation and support to workers, and ultimately proposing changes in the factory.
When asked about her key takeaways from the program, Sophea mentioned the importance of equal job opportunities, including salary, and initiating a policy allowing pregnant women to leave 15 minutes earlier than other workers and offering a 1-hour break in the nursery. This, she says, can make a big difference for the child and mother.
She also called on other stakeholders, including union and workers’ representatives and team leaders, to take up the training program.
“If I were to look back a year ago, I used to think that as long as everyone has a job, we don’t need to focus a lot on gender or women’s rights. But after the end of the program and coming back to the factory, as a woman myself, it was strange how I never put myself in their shoes and took the time to understand the amount of pressure and concerns that my fellow female workers are facing,” Sophea said.
She noted that since part of the training program is advocating workers to be more vocal and inclusive in decision-making within their own families, it could play an important part for all women who work in factories. She now considers herself an advocate for workers’ rights and gender equality, but adds that the work is not yet done, and there is much more to accomplish.