The first time Nov Dara asked the questions he would use to assess factories for two decades, it was not even at a factory. He was in a carpenter’s workshop, asking a handyman questions as if they were garment factory owners to test the assessment programme that would later become critical to Better Factories Cambodia. He remembers sweating and feeling nervous throughout the exercise. After three months of developing and testing the assessment process — the first iteration of Better Factories Cambodia’s factory questionnaires and reports — Dara and the eight initial staff members went to real garment factories to test out the programme.
However, Dara and his assessment partner were not as warmly received by factories as he was by local shops where they practiced the assessment. On the first visit, he remembers telling a manager they were from ILO, but the managers didn’t even know what the International Labour Organization was. He remembers sitting under a tree with his partner after that first assessment, realizing they only managed to ask management half the questions on their paper survey. Some factory managers were aggressive, raising their voice at their pair of assessors. He recalls two factory managers even raising their arms against Dara, in defense of his “attacks” on their business.
“It was very, very challenging during that time, and sometimes we were pushed by the factory manager. At one factory I went to, I asked questions to them, and they were very angry with me because it seems like by the questions they asked me, they felt they are the victims, so they pushed me out.
Dara once received a complaint from a factory manager that left him discouraged, with the manager saying to send another assessor — anyone but Dara. He sulked for two weeks after the encounter, worried that his employer at that time, Lejo Sibbel, would fire him. When Lejo realized Dara was upset, he instead encouraged him: Lejo took this kind of complaint as a sign that Dara was performing his job properly, not giving into pressure from the management and sticking to the principles of the assessment.
After three or four years as an assessor, Dara started helping programme managers develop training programmes throughout the late 2000s. This was Dara’s specialization: he had experience working as a technical trainer, taking the practical information he learned from schooling and military factory employment in Russia back to Cambodia in the 1980s, but the garment industry was a different field for him. He also had to navigate the complexities of working with different foreign advisers over the course of his career, learning their workstyles and negotiating cultural differences as he tried to improve upon the training programme. The training programme since has grown to a range of topics, covering workplace relations and key skills for workers, and Dara has been invited to other countries to help develop Better Work curriculum.
Over the years, Dara says he’s watched factories transform. Sometimes there are small improvements that make the factory a more comfortable or safe place for workers. Other factories have changed completely, improving their relationship with the factory’s two unions and gaining a major brand as a client.
“They do a very good job because they have good relations, they’re very keen to allow workers to participate in trainings, and they allow visits from Better Factories Cambodia and see it as a good thing,” he said. “What I see is the factory manager is very proactive. It’s moved to a friendly environment. They want to meet with us to present their initiatives to the programme.” What was more rewarding for the training leader was seeing garment workers participate enthusiastically in trainings and later use those skills to earn a promotion.
“Every time I go to a factory, they [workers] run to me and call me ‘teacher.’ They say they got a new role, got more money. It’s my pride to see the young ladies who participate in trainings become supervisors.”
Dara hopes the factories will soon be able to keep up those standards with monitoring from Cambodian government labour inspectors instead of the Better Factories Cambodia programme he’s helped shape. The real proof of his success as a trainer would be to see factories keeping up these standards, he says, without he or other Better Factories Cambodia assessors pointing out the achievements and issues.
“Better Factories Cambodia has been here for 20 years, now we want to move them up to sustainable compliance with the assessment, and a culture of compliance. We do not think we’ll be in the industry for many more years.”