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Moving up the career ladder – A garment worker’s story of resilience, grit and success

20 Aug 2019

How greater opportunity has helped one woman demonstrate her potential and become a role model for others

Meet Phat Sinoun – a 29-year-old former worker from Prey Veng province, Cambodia.

Sinoun is a HR assistant in a garment factory where she manages data covering critical contract issues such as working hours and benefits. It’s a good job with a decent wage and she and her husband soon plan to buy a home. It’s a long way to come for an orphan who could not afford to finish high school.

Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) first met Sinoun in 2013 when she was selected from a pool of 313 applications to compete in BFC’s Radio Labor Law Competition designed to broaden awareness on Cambodia’s Labour Law. “I didn’t know what the competition was about, and I didn’t know very much about the labour law, but I wanted to try anyway,” said the then 21-year-old garment factory worker. Nevertheless, Sinoun went home with the first place cash prize of $US 200—triple her monthly salary.

Unable to stay at school after her parents died, Sinoun found work as a garment worker at the age of 18.  “I feel so proud of myself because I don’t expect to gain knowledge and be exposed to new things in my life,” says Sinoun. Armed with a deeper understanding of the Labour Law, Sinoun started to use her knowledge as a volunteer member of the Performance Improvement Consultative Committee (PICC) in her factory, a BFC industrial relations model where union representatives, employers and workers collaboratively address workplace issues. She continued to join and take part in BFC’s various training programmes and went on to represent the workers’ voice at an international buyer’s forum in Vietnam.

Given her determination, , the impressive strides Sinoun has in her career to date are in many ways unsurprising. From the sewing section to the ironing section to the packaging section and then to an office job as a packaging assistant, Sinoun worked hard to learn and continuously improve her skills and knowledge. She worked to build trust among supervisors and colleagues alike and, although often tired after long hours on the factory floor, she took the opportunity to do what she could to build her capacity – for example spending $US 15 a month on English lessons (22  per cent of the then Cambodian min monthly wage). She is thankful to Sabrina Garment Factory who she believes took a chance on her by employing her in her current position. Having received training from BFC in many areas related to worker well-being, she initially worked in the training department of the factory, customising training plans for workers, before advancing to her current role.

The best part of her job, Sinoun says, is how she has managed to improve her labour law knowledge so that she can support others workers to understand their rights and responsibilities, helping them to do things like calculate their wages, and encouraging them to engage in effective dispute resolution processes.

Like many women advancing in their careers, Sinoun has faced challenges.  Although she has had support along the way, she has had to make considerable investments of her time and finances, even facing criticism from those who felt that her ambitions were too lofty for a garment worker.  Today Sinoun says her life has completely changed, she is grateful for a well-paid job with which she can support her family, and for the support and encouragement she gets from her employer. “My village now admires my efforts, comparing to their first bad words toward me as a person with no higher education. My living conditions are better today. I am married with one child, my husband works as a warehouse controller in a factory in Phnom Penh. We have a good salary and we plan to buy a house.”

But how does she think the industry can support more Sinouns? In particular, what advice would she give to garment workers and to factories to make this happen? To garment workers, Sinoun encourages them to believe that they have the power to change their lives, to build their knowledge and to not give up. To factories, she urges them to provide regular, customised training for workers. She says they must recognise the potential in workers who are willing to grow in their jobs and skills and help them to build their capacity. Someday Sinoun would like to use her skills and knowledge to run her own business, but for now she wants to continue to grow and learn in her work.

Empowering women and opening opportunities for them to take leadership roles is one of the four pillars of Better Work’s, Better Factories Cambodia’s global parent, strategy on gender.  Along with combatting discrimination and harassment, ensuring fairness for child and family care and building women’s voice and representation in the workplace, it is one of the ways the programme is ensuring gender equality in the workplace.

Sinoun has shown that when women are given the opportunities and encouragement to progress in their careers, they can do just that. – “BFC gave me a chance to grow,” she says, going on to point out that women are underrepresented in leadership roles in factories and if more factories can help support more women to become leaders, they can ensure the female voice is part of the decision making process.  Sinoun’s story is an inspiring one and although a story about one woman only, cases like hers pave the way for other factories and other women to succeed. So that for the next Sinoun out there, it may be that little bit easier for her to reach her true potential.

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