Blood on YOUR Clothes

Have you ever been clothes shopping and saw a stunning new jacket for a bargain price of €60 and thought to yourself ‘I wonder how much the person who made this jacket gets paid?’ Realistically probably not, it may have dawned on you once or twice but it is only a brief thought. In Cambodia the wage for a garment factory worker is $95 a month. Yes, $95 USD a MONTH. The majority of these garment factory workers are female. With this monthly wage they have to support their families with food, shelter, healthcare and education. Could you do it?

Right now in Cambodia these garment workers are striking for better monthly wages. The people who make the clothes you wear are looking for a fairer wages. However, the current ruling government party, the Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen (61) has other ideas. Rallies by workers have been suppressed with batons, electric cattle prods, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition. So far the death toll from these protests stands at four dead, 30 injured and 23 detained/kidnapped.

$160

Adidas, American Eagle Outfitters, Debenhams, Esprit, H&M, New Look, Nike, Primark, Puma, Tesco and Under Armour are just some of the companies that sub-contract the factories that employ these exploited workers. The workers unions are looking for a wage increase to $160. The Ministry of Labour set the wage at $100 per month after protests on the 24th of December. Meeting this wage of $160 a month wouldn’t price the multinationals out of Cambodia. This wage is still competitive with China ($141) and the Philippines ($177). The problem, according to experts is not just the increase in monthly wage, but that this wage increase may lead to future expectations that are unsupportable. Part of the problem is that these workers unions are corrupt themselves. Union leaders are being treated to all expenses paid training workshops in Paris. The government pays off the union leaders instead of paying the workers.  When the workers unions don’t do their job, the people take to the street.

Razor wire

According to the International Labour Organisation, Cambodia’s garment stitching is the country’s largest industrial sector. Employing 400,000 workers and accounting for $5 billion in annual exports, 35 percent of GDP. All these exported clothes make it to the retail stores in Europe and the US. Consumers are usually unaware of these protest situations because of minimal media coverage on these issues. Instead of hearing about an unarmed female food vendor being shot in the chest with an AK-47 in Cambodia, we are informed that Justin Bieber has been arrested for drunk driving. Where do Western priorities lie when it comes to important current affairs?

AK-47

Cambodia has a devastating history. The US bombing of the country as part of the US-Vietnam War from 1969-1973, the American bombers dropped more bombs by tonnage into Cambodia, than all of the Allied Forces combined during World War II. The hyper-communist Khmer Rouge regime ultimately followed from 1975-1979. This extremely violent rule was led by the infamous Pol Pot who initiated Year Zero. The entire population was banished to the countryside to work in the rice farms. Any person that was in anyway educated or who worked for the government was executed. By 1979 nearly 2 million people had died from starvation, forced labour and killings.

The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was a Khmer Rouge battalion commander who defected to help lead an invading Vietnamese-installed government that ran Cambodia from 1979 until the late 1980s. Hun Sen has since controlled Cambodia for 28 years.

In recent times we have seen Middle Eastern leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak deposed during the Arab Spring. When asked if he may fall similarly to the Arab Spring dictators in 2011, he strongly responded, “I not only weaken the opposition, I’m going to make them dead…and if anyone is strong enough to hold a demonstration, I will beat those dogs and put them in a cage.”

Just 12 hours before I sat down to write this article, violence erupted in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Riot police prevented demonstrators from entering Freedom Park, where they intended to protest against low wages and the continued detention of 23 people.

It is clear that the people of Cambodia are not happy with the current political climate, especially after a national election that was marred by extraordinary voting irregularities. The people continue to take to the streets looking for justice. Here, they are being met by the cold hard fist of the Cambodian government in the form of batons, electric cattle prods and in some cases, live bullets.

No one knows when blood will stop staining the streets of Phnom Penh. One thing is assured; it is the blood of the vulnerable members of Cambodian society, the people looking for fairer wages, whom make the clothes that we wear.

Riot Police

Article for UCC Express

Building an Education and Community Centre in Rural Cambodia – http://www.scao-school.org

A lot of people in UCC do not even know this course exists, and a great majority of people do not even know what the course entails when I tell them. In fact when I tell them what I studied, I am usually met by a blank expressionless face. However since its establishment in 2005, this course has grown and developed in so many different ways. It attracts international recognition and interest from all over the world, from Asia to Africa and everywhere in-between. Graduates from this course are scattered all over the globe, in countries like Uganda, Myanmar, Cambodia and Mongolia, to name a few. It is a truly unique university course, and the first undergraduate course of its kind in Ireland.

I graduated from BSc International Development and Food Policy (IFDP) in UCC in 2012, and a passion to work overseas was something that grew within me during the four years of university. The course has a mandatory 6 month overseas work placement in a developing country in third year. My placement was in Kolkata, India. This was an amazing six months, and it is something that I will never forget. Being taken out of your comfort zone and dropped into one of the poorest cities in India is a real sink or swim moment. IFDP does not just educate you in the classroom through lectures, projects and assignments, it makes you think for yourself, develop your own ideas, plans and personally develop in ways that no other course does.

When I graduated in October 2012, I had to ask myself the same question that every other recent graduate asks, “What next?” There are a limited amount of answers to this question; do a Masters, get a job working in a shop or bar, look for a job in your field, emigrate, or go on the Dole. I on the other hand decided to look for alternatives to these options. I wanted something in my field of study and I wanted to go travelling. I found an Irish organization called SCOOP Foundation who was advertising for a volunteering position in rural Cambodia as the Development Officer for a small Cambodian NGO called SCAO. During the interview I was offered the position, and I decided to go for it, what other alternative did I have that was better than this? Looking back now, it was a life changing decision, and one of the best decisions I have ever made.

SCAO is a small organization that has only been established in the past five years. It runs two schools in rural areas just outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Combined the schools offer free English classes to over 500 children aged 4-22 years of age. The classes are thought by international volunteers who come from all over the world to work at SCAO. We also have computer classes in both schools with over 60 students learning how to use Word, PowerPoint, Excel, email and CV creation. Finally, our newest vocational training project is just a year old. The Hairdressing and Beautician Project already has 8 graduates, and currently 24 in partaking in the current class.

Since my arrival a year ago, we have made huge progress in community development in Som Roung village, where one of the SCAO schools are located. I designed a survey to find out what are the main struggles that face local families in the village every day. Three trends soon emerged from the survey; lack of access to clean water, lack of access to a toilet and lack of access to healthcare. So far we have implemented over 350 ceramic water filters into homes, thus giving over 1,500 men, women and children access to clean safe drinking water. We have constructed 11 toilets for some of the poorest families in the village and there are currently plans to construct more in the flood plains of the village. Finally we have developed an educational healthcare awareness program in the village that takes place every 3 months.

My next biggest project is by far the most difficult, but it is the one that will have the biggest impact. SCAO are currently funding for the construction for a new Education and Community Centre (ECC) in a rural village called Prey Ponror, located 25km northwest of Phnom Penh. This ECC will be as environmentally and financially sustainable as possible. The ECC will have solar panels on the roof to provide electricity for the school, a water harvesting system to reduce the use of water, and a school garden to provide vegetables for the school. Financially the ECC will be sustainable through the volunteers who come to stay and teach at the school.

The new ECC will run similar projects in Prey Ponror Village. In the school there will be free English classes for children of all ages and all levels of English. A computer room will be constructed and computer classes will take place on a daily basis.

The biggest obstacle to overcome in the construction of this school is the financial costs. SCAO has partner organisations that are going to be fundraising for the new ECC. However, this is just going to cover some of the costs. For the remaining costs we are looking to the international community to come together and to donate towards the construction of the school. www.scao-school.org is a website that is specially designed for the fundraising of the new ECC. On the website you can symbolically purchase items for the construction and furnishing of the ECC. People can purchase items from €2-€12,000 depending on their generosity. I would urge people to have a look at the website and to pass it on to their friends and family.

As SCAO is an organization that attracts volunteers of all ages and from all over the globe, volunteering offers an alternative summer to a J1 or inter-railing. If you are interested in volunteering for SCAO, check out www.savepoorchildreninasia.org

UPDATE – Its been too long!!

It’s been around two months now since I’ve updated this blog! I’ve been pretty busy so I just haven’t had the time to sit down and type something up. As I said I’ve been really busy, so this is what has been happening.

I’ve made the move from Som Roung into Phnom Penh. It is a lot different to the village but it is a nice change and it is certainly different. I’m living in a pretty central location in a 2 bedroom apartment with a nice balcony where I have set up my hammock!

View from the balcony

View from the balcony

Living room

Living room

Bedroom

Bedroom

The reason for this move is for financial reasons. If I want to stay in Cambodia and work with SCAO I need to start making some money. So as most Westerners in Cambodia I have taken up a position as a teacher. I am now working in CIA FIRST International School. I am teaching Grade 2 part-time, all the kids are between 6-10 years old. Their English is very good and the school is totally different to the school in Som Roung. The children in CIA all have iPad’s, iPhones and other gadgets that I could never afford. So I work from 8am until 11.30am so it is not too bad, the only bad thing is getting up early every morning. When I finish in CIA I usually go to Som Roung in the afternoon, this change is crazy. Going from CIA to Som Roung is something that I can’t really describe; you are going from rich kids in CIA to the poor children in Som Roung. There is one thing that I always say to people when they ask me about this difference, ‘Children are children, no matter how much money their families have’. Children are going to act like children all the time, and that’s the bottom line. I am not going to pass judgement on children because they come from a wealthy family.

So ya, since I’ve started working in CIA I have been up the walls. I have to adapt to this new job that I have never done before, lesson plans, and meeting curriculum standards. CIA is a great school with resources that are just amazing, 2 swimming pools, 3 computer labs, 2 basketball courts, fitness room and a great staff to work with. In the classroom we have a computer projector so this helps a lot when I am teaching.

After I finish teaching in CIA I usually head home, have some food and then nap for an hour. Having a nap is awesome! I really need it some days. After nap time I head out to SCAO to make sure that everything is running the way it should be. SCAO has been a very busy organisation in the past few weeks. We said goodbye to Julius, Lukas and Leyla who had been here for a year. They were very important in the running of SCAO and the two schools.

SCAO, has a huge project coming up in the future, and this is something that may see me staying here for another year or even more. A 3rd school!! This is huge for SCAO as well as myself. I am helping head the project, this includes putting together a project proposal, source funding, solar panels, design of the school, financial running of the school and finding local teachers to work in the school. So this is a major project for me to undertake and it is something that I really want to step up to and implement as best as I can!

Local House

Local House

Entrance to the Pagoda

Entrance to the Pagoda

Area around the village

Area around the village

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

3rd School Land

Area around the village

Area around the village

Local House

Local House

Entrance to the Pagoda

Entrance to the Pagoda

There has also been some political violence here over the elections. This hasn’t affected me, luckily! But it is always something that we have to be vigilant about, and I have to keep an eye on the volunteers and ensure their safety!

I wanted to keep this post short and sweet but I want to try and put some more detailed posts up in the near future!

Depending on how busy I am!!

Back to the lesson plans for school in the morning!!

Healthcare Month at SCAO-July

Healthcare month at SCAO was not something that was planned but it was something that just fell into place and ran very smoothly. It was the combination of Chris from Pacha Youth (USA) coming over for a two month period to help implement a healthcare project in Som Roung Village, and Ali and Ana from Estrellas-de-Camboya (Spain) who arrived with 200 toothbrushes and the skill to carry out eye-sight examinations. This combined with other projects that have been in the pipe-line, the month just fell together and every week there were two projects taking place.

Oral Health Education Classes- 1st – 5th July
These classes were carried out by Ali and Ana in the New School in Som Roung Village. They had brought over 200 toothbrushes and toothpaste from Dentaid from Spain. It is a common problem in Som Roung and all over Cambodia that children are eating too much junk food(crisps and sugar candy) and soft drinks loaded with sugar and chemicals (Samuri) It was agreed that Ali and Ana would give presentations to the older students and then work down to the younger students. The presentations were not given to the younger students because they would not be mature enough to grasp the concept of brushing your teeth three times a day.
The classes were carried out with the help of Vibol to ensure that all the students understood everything that was being explained to them. The main areas that were covered were.
1) Importance of brushing your teeth.
2) Basics of brushing your teeth and key points.
3) Theory of brushing your teeth.
The idea behind this project was to get the children into the habit of brushing their teeth on a daily basis.
There were 30 toothbrushes left over and these were distributed to people in the village.

Blood Samples- 8th July
As part of Chris’ research into the needs of the community he contacted 4 doctors in Phnom Penh to see if they could come out to Som Roung and take blood samples from 14 children. This was to test for various health related issues such as Vitamin A deficiency, diabetes, worms and protein deficiency. The project took three hours to complete and the blood samples were sent back to a lab in Phnom Penh to be analysed. The test results came back and indicated no immediate worries for the children, although some of the protein levels were below the level that they should have been.

Eye-sight Examinations- 9th July
It isn’t very common to see Cambodian people with glasses, and it is mainly down to a couple of factors. Firstly, people can not afford the glasses if they need them. Secondly, people may not know that something is wrong with them. Lastly, people may not know that there is a way of improving their eyesight.
Again Ali and Ana were heading this project with equipment and 60 eye glasses that were donated by Opti-Kas from Spain. The objective behind this project was to provide glasses to the children in the Centre that needed glasses, this would in turn help the children to read better in class and not fall behind because of their ability to see the board. All in all there were three children in the Centre that needed glasses. With 57 pairs of glasses remaining, Mr.Sameth spread the word around the community that surrounds the Centre. Soon there were a lot of older members of the community coming to get tested. Some were watchmakers, tailors, cooks, butchers or just interested in reading.
After finishing with the Centre and the neighbours, they took the glasses to Som Roung village where they continued with the eye examinations to the elder villagers, until they ran out of glasses.

Dental Visit to Cambodian World Family – 15th July
Through collaboration with Cambodian World Family, SCAO was able to organise a day for the Centre kids to travel out to their dental clinic and be seen by professional dentists. Here they received a general check up to see if there were any complications. Everything went well and none of the children had any problems. We are now in the process of bringing students from the Old School to CWF.

AIESEC Healthcare and Nutrition Workshops at the Old School – 17th July
AIESEC has always been working closely with SCAO by sending over volunteers to help out in English classes or in special projects. Here AIESEC sent several volunteers who are also medical students to the Old School to carry out workshops in the areas of healthcare and nutrition. There were some volunteers from China and Australia, but the majority of them were from Cambodia and studying in Phnom Penh. The workshops were carried out in Khmer to ensure that the workshops had the full impact that is needed.

 

Change or No Change- Election Time In Cambodia

Change or No Change??? That is the question and it is the chant that can be heard around the streets of Phnom Penh. Election time in any country is an important time, but when it is in a ‘developing’ country it is time of high tensions. You have a formula of people who are tired of being under-paid, under appreciated, living in poverty and facing corruption on a daily basis. Add this unhappiness to the tension of an election and you could have a recipe for disaster, tragedy and violence.

I have experienced an election in Kolkata, India in 2011 before. This election time was somewhat peaceful, besides the fact that a bomb was detonated around the corner from our apartment. However we found out that this detonation was just a show of power by one party and the bomb did not contain any ball-barrings or nails.

So here is a quick run down of the Cambodian general election 2013
The General Election will take place on the 28th July 2013 and there is an estimated 9.6 million Cambodians eligible to vote, however this is estimated by The National Election Committee (NEC), so numbers could not be correct. It has also been reported in some local newspapers that National Identification cards have been taken off people in the provinces. 
Cambodia has a 123-seat National Assembly, which is one of the largest in the world. The ruling party in government is the Cambodian People’s Party(CPP) who currently hold a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. The CPP is led by Hun Sen who has governed the party since the Vietnamese-backed owerthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is the next biggest party, who’s leader is Sam Rainsy. He has been in exile since 2010 to avoid alleged crimes of racial incitement and destruction of property. From what I have researched he has been living in the USA and Paris. However in a recent turn of events Sam Rainsy has been granted a pardon from the King and is set to return to Phnom Penh on the 19th July at 9am. The CNRP has gathered a large youth following and the streets have been packed with chants of “lai m-pal” English:Number 7 (CNRP is number 7 on the ballot paper(the last on the ballot))

With Sam Rainsy’s return on Friday, there is a huge turn out expected to greet him at the airport. This new lease of life for the CNRP party also brings with it heightening tensions, and a repeat of the 1997 elections is best avoided. Here at the NGO we are taking all necessary precautions to ensure that all the volunteers know what to do and most importantly what not to do in the event of violence breaking out. Political demonstrations at the Cambodian level is something that is very interesting but also something that is best avoided. These are hotspots for attacks as it is a small area containing large masses of people. We are advising our volunteers to have a plan in action that may involve them leaving the county, Vietnam being the closest border to Phnom Penh.

Of course these are just precautions that we are taking, but it is necessary to be prepared for the worst, at the same time hoping that it doesn’t happen.

It is very much expected that CPP will win the election, with CNRP wanting to gain more seats in the National Assembly. A complete change of government is something that no one is predicting.

You have to ask the question, in this situation is ‘Change’ a good thing. Or would it just bring more devastation to a country that has suffered enough.