At Rajana: Village Tradition and City Business Practice Mutually Respected

written by  Michael Bass (Rajana Marketing Advisory and MCC SALT participant)

Rajana Crafts Association is a fair trade crafts producer, distributor, and retailer.  This organization does it all.  Going up the steps, to the floor above the Phnom Penh retail store, you see a strange mix of handmade pottery, greeting cards, and excel docs.  Stepping into the accompanying room you see Nimul, Rajana’s manager, either discussing a design, meeting with a potential export buyer, or typing away as she manages relationships with partners across the globe.  There is always something happening within the Rajana office’s four brick walls.P1070981 04

30 artisans work in the head office, and another 120 artisans produce for Rajana  throughout Cambodia.  I had the honor of accompanying Rajana on a recent site-visit to one of the communities supplying traditional scarves for Rajana, 2-3 hours outside Phnom Penh  We met with the area coordinator, who manages sales for the people in the community, and he led us on a visit to the homes of the artisans producing for Rajana.  We walked from home to home, visiting with families as they sat together while working on their latest project from right within their home.  After hearing the horror stories of the Cambodian garment factories, it was refreshing to see a family enjoying a meal together, then to step 2 meters over to begin work.

What surprised me was that as much as it was a pleasure to see these artisans at work, it was even more special to see the Phnom Penh office staff off their computers and back into their “other” life.  You could see it in their faces, they felt back at home!  It appeared similar to the look you see in your parent’s faces when they return to the community they grew up in, after being away for 10 years.  I saw the staff, whom I’m used to discussing marketing strategies with, energetically be a part of the world they’re often separated from, but which they still love, and a world I could never fully understand.  It seemed as if they were so thankful for what the people in the village communities were providing for the larger Rajana.  While I would certainly expect them to be thankful, I was surprised by the extent of their thankfulness, and the sense of companionship shown between the office workers and the rural artisans.  I had always imagined that Rajana functioned with a “serve the others” mindset, and I had subconsciously placed the village artisans at a lower level, as the one’s being served, even though the Rajana office staff  rely entirely on the artisans’ skills for their own livlihood.  My subconscious placement may have been due to the way that that particular community’s population and buyers had been decreasing, but also due to the notions that commonly surround fair trade crafts (sympathy problematically being one).  Though those notions may have even been a concept that foreigners founded Rajana on, it is not what stands today.  The Rajana office staff are beyond that, and view their relationship with the village craftsman as a mutually beneficial one.  It’s not as if the city staff are slaving away in the office just to help “the poor people of the village”, no, they simply rely on each other.  They are working cooperatively.

I believe that it is more challenging for foreign workers and village artisans to develop level, cooperative relationships, relationships that are beyond the giving and receiving of sympathy and service. Now of course, the idea of employing village workers out of love or sympathy might not be an awful thing, but there is a higher chance that the village workers could find themselves challenging their own self-worth as artisans, and even as people.  This then shines light on the beauty of how MCC works and who MCC chooses to support.  Though there are many NGOs and social enterprises doing similar work to Rajana, Rajana is one of the few that is completely managed by Cambodian staff. DSC00505

After returning to the office, and getting back to our “market strategy” talks, I now feel provided with a stronger understanding of relationship between the office staff and village workers and it is less hierarchical than I may have imagined. I see know why it gets personal when the idea of trimming one product line and expanding another comes up.  Office staff are thinking of their “sisters” in the villages and what would happen to the worker’s children and rest of family if Rajana’s need for their art was lessened.  I admire that, and have learned a lot from those conversationsIn the end, Rajana is not just an organization providing services for artisans.  Rajana is a collaboration of societies, shaped and led by both village tradition and Phnom Penh business practices, and founded on mutual respect and dependence.

10 Things We Can All Do to Support Justice for Garment Factory Workers in Cambodia.

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If you have been following our blog, reading the news, or tracking with any of the MCCers in Cambodia you know, you will likely have read that garment factory workers in Cambodia have been holding massive strikes and demonstrations to ask for an increase to their minimum wage to $160/month.  These strikes and protests have been met with violence, that has left 5 dead, 39 injured, and numerous imprisoned. It’s easy for all of us to feel discouraged & paralyzed in the face of so much injustice and oppression.  This is not a problem unique to Cambodia, but sometimes it’s helpful to isolate one issue, and work out action steps from that.  In that context, the following is a list of:

10 Things We Can All Do to Support Justice for Garment Factory Workers in Cambodia.

1) Pray. Often, prayer is found last in action lists, as if prayer is left only to the resigned.  Yes, there are times when prayer without action is hollow, but there is also a time for Christians to say that we believe that the Kingdom of God is living & active & advancing in our world.  This means that miracles of all sorts can happen, including transformed lives, attitudes, behaviours, and relationships.  Join us in praying earnestly that leaders in Cambodia would have great compassion for the marginalized and those in poverty.  Pray that that compassion would combine with wisdom to create a positive way forward that combines long term policy change that benefits all of Cambodia.

2) Be Informed. Learn more about where your clothes come from!  The issues surrounding the garment industry is causing great harm in Cambodia.  Did you know that the garment sector accounts for more than 80% of Cambodia’s exports?  That in 2013 the average Cambodian garment factory worker earned a minimum monthly wage of $75, plus a $5 health bonus.  That the minimum wage in Cambodia is just 21% of what the Asia Floor Wage calculate to be a living wage for the country?   Check out this page for more information. Image

3) Encourage the Cambodian Church. Do you know any Cambodian Christians?  Do you know any Christians working in Cambodia?  Write to them.  Call them.  Facebook them.  Ask them how the Church in Cambodia is responding to these injustices, how they are being the hands and feet of Jesus to those suffering around them.

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4) Consider Your Own Consumption Habits. We, in the West, are the demand side to this equation.  The more clothes we demand, and the lower prices we ask for, the greater the pressure for garment factories to produce more and pay less.  There are a lot of other factors involved here, including middlemen, local owners, corruption and local government policies.  But the factor that you can mostly directly change is YOU.  Are there ways you can curb your consumption in this area?  Are there ways you can change your lifestyle so that you buy these products less frequently?  Can you be creative with second-hand options?

5) ACT. Obviously, you will not be able to buy absolutely everything you need at a thrift store and the garment industry is not going away, nor should necessarily be advocating that they should be.  (There is a solid case to be made for the economic development these international companies can bring to a developing country, particularly as an avenue to employ young people looking for a skilled trade.)  The current model does help many people in Cambodia, but it needs to improve.  Garment workers are not currently paid a living wage and that is not healthy, sustainable, or ethical.  Therefore, we need to use our collective voices as consumers to tell both the international brands, the local factory owners, and the government that we find the status quo unacceptable. That as consumers, we want to buy clothing products with a clear conscience, and we would be willing to pay more if we knew that the modest increase in price was ensuring a living wage for the people making our clothing.  This pressure works!

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6) Write [Act Part 1]. The top five brands sourcing from Cambodia are H&M, GAP, Levi Strauss & Co, Adidas and Target.  Do you purchase clothes from these companies?   Take some time to write a letter to these brands.  Post to their facebook page.  Email their Corporate Responsibility staff.  Let them know that you are a customer and that you are concerned about what is happening in Cambodia. The Clean Clothes Campaign has a simple online petition you can sign here. Let us know if your comments below how you took action.1902992_664393833608148_1526127446_n

7) Join Up [Act Part 2]. There are people all over the world forming networks & trying to advocate for better labor standards in the garment industry.  Find them.  Follow them.  Support them. You can start with checking out the Clean Clothes Campaign & Labour Behind the Label, & Better Factories Cambodia.

8) Talk about It [Act Part 3]. Start a conversation about this topic.  Talk about it at your dinner table, church, bible study, local library, etc.  Find people who live near you & brainstorm ways you could work together encourage each other in your consumer habits and to take action steps to address the injustices you see.  To get you started, find a great lesson plan from the NYT with ideas for talking about this issue with youth here, & a video after the factory collapse in Bangledesh from PBS with discussions here.

9) Support Human Rights Researchers and Journalists. The garment industry and its partners would like to keep stories of insufficient wages, poor working conditions, and violence against garment factory workers trying to exercise their rights hidden.  We can thank local and international media, as well as human rights organizations for bringing these stories to light and for taking big risks to make sure this information is public.  But this kind of work is not free.  Consider how you can expand your giving to include human rights and other awareness raising groups.  Need ideas?  Cambodian Legal Education Center, LicadhoAmnesty International, Human Rights Watch, & Labour Behind the Label have all done good research in Cambodia.

10) Encourage a Human Rights Activist. Do you know someone who is working with human rights issues Cambodia?  If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you know someone who is working with MCC in Cambodia.  Have you written to them lately?  Have you encouraged them in their work?  Have you prayed for them?  Work in the human rights sector can be discouraging and exhausting.  Encourage the people you know who are on the front lines of that promoting human rights. Let them know they are not alone.

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The Whole World is Watching by the Free the 15 Campaign

Pray [again!] #1 is important!  This kind of injustice and violence is real and can seem intractable, but we believe in a God who transforms and restores.  Pray for wisdom as you reflect, discern & decide how you will act.

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picture by Licadho Cambodia

The Rat and The Tiger: A Voice from Angkhearhdei Primary School

Angkearhdei Primary School 
Prey Veng Province, Cambodia

 “My name is Ly Sreylis, I’m 10 years old and I live in Angkearhdei Village. I live with my mother, my grandma and my little bother. My father is working in Thailand as a recycler. We miss him. I remember that his favorite food is fish. Last year, my mother was working with him in Thailand, too, and my brother and I lived here with my grandma. But she is here now with us.

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Sreylis shows where her class meets

I help at home by washing clothes, cleaning house, bringing water and, sometimes, I cook the rice for meals. At school, I am in grade 4 and our job is to carry water to the latrines every day, the 6th grade students help to make the bor-bor for our breakfast. I love to eat the bor-bor! My friends and I like to play jump-rope with a rope we make from rubber bands during our study breaks.

” I love to study Khmer the best. I especially love the stories we read. My favorite story is about the tiger and the rat.” Sreylis’ eyes are bright, and her smile spreads when I ask her to tell me the story. She pulls herself up straight, opens her eyes wide, and puts on a formal storytelling voice.

 “A tiger lived in the woods. One day, he went to find food and saw the rat sleeping. The rat jumped up and begged, ‘Don’t eat me! My body is small! It is not enough food for you, and if you don’t eat me I will always be grateful!’ And so the tiger didn’t eat him.”

She sighs happily and sinks her own small body back into her chair.

Sreylis’ father lost a leg during the war and the family does not own rice land. Like most rural, landless families, all the members strong enough to work must find ways to earn a living and support the elderly and very young. Very few children like Sreylis, who live in rural villages, are able to attend school past the primary grades.

On July 28th, Cambodia held a national election to determine the seats in the National Assembly, the Prime Minister, and the governing party. The past few years have seen increasing reports of human rights violations, land concession and resource extraction abuses as well as a growing gulf between the very wealthy who are often benefiting from these abuses and the very poor. As the election drew closer and Cambodians got ready to cast their votes, there was anxiety about tensions and even possible violence. The election did not resolve the people’s hopes for change or fears of conflict, as both major parties claimed victory. Currently, a committee involving members of both parties and civil society organizations are investigating charges of voter fraud and election tampering on the part of the long term ruling party.

There is much room for positive changes in Cambodia and many hopeful, energetic people who want to build a stronger country where access to basic opportunities, education and other common goods are more fairly distributed. The road to change is difficult, however, and often it is the most vulnerable who suffer during times of disruption because their support systems are more precarious.

By the time this story reaches you the situation will have developed further. Angkearhdei Village and children like Ly Sreylis will be affected by these developments. Most families in the village have members who migrate regularly to work both legally and illegally in Thailand and send money back to the village to small children and grandparents. The economics of rice farming is difficult even in a good year, with many small farmers going into debt to money lenders for the costs of seed, fertilizers and pesticides. These debts force many small farmers to sell their land and migrate to Thailand, and to send their children to work in garment factories, and other labor far from home and from the support of their community. If tensions and conflict escalate in Cambodia in the next months, these coping mechanisms will be come more fragile. Families are dispersed, parents are often far from their children, and the anxiety experienced by people who lived through the decades of war and struggle in the 1970s through 90s is fueled by memories of their own trauma.

Sreylis’ story of the tiger and the rat resonate in this current climate. It is not an inspiring story of transformation, or an American story of the little guy outwitting the big guy, it is simply a story of survival. But, the powerful are often hungry and do not listen to the pleas of the small and weak. Please pray for a just peace in Cambodia, and for wise, strong leadership from both major parties and civil society organizations to put the good of the country and of children like those at the Angkearhdei School before their own personal gain.

MCC support:

The MCC Global Family supported breakfast program at Angkeardhei school makes it possible for children like Sreylis to have a nutritious meal every morning. The teachers and school director find that not only does this enable families to continue sending their children to school rather than out to forage for fish and other food in the fields, it also builds community and accountability among the students and teachers as they work together, and increases student punctuality, attention and focus. MCC also sponsored the school director, Sot Mern, and one teacher to attend a peace building training during the August school vacation. They will bring information back to their students and community.

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sharing lunch, MCC Staff Maly with School Director’s wife, Sotie

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Jump Rope

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Rice planting

by Lisa Bade

photography by Lisa Bade

MCC YAMEN! The Joys and Challenges of Leaving Home

My name is Aharon (my name in Khmer means “sun”, so people are surprised when I introduce myself!).. I am from Costa Rica, and proudly part of the family González Alpízar, I am 20 years old and student of Public relations. In Costa Rica, I’m part of a church called Buenas Nuevas (Good News).

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I came to Cambodia through the YAMEN! program, but actually had plans first to go to India,however I could not get my visa so one day before leaving my country, I realized that Cambodia was waiting for me, ( or I was waiting for Cambodia?) Anyways, I know that God had this incredible experience prepared for me. With everything changed, my adventure started.

Where is Cambodia? Why there? What am I going to do there? These and some other questions were occupying my thoughts, and I have to admit that I felt really scared, lost, and many other feelings that come along with big changes. But right after this kind of mental crisis, I said to myself “Aharon, God is in control – just go with the flow” Guess what? I did. I just accepted God’s will and from that moment I learned to lean on God; that was the best thing I have ever done.

Giving God my problems and worries has made my way through this life experience much easier.

 Wow! This was one of the hardest things I have been through, saying bye to my family was extremely sad. I remember myself crying like crazy in front of the gate number 8 at the airport. Everyone there was looking at me but the feelings of sadness were greater than the feelings of shame, so I continued crying (ignoring all the stunned looks!)

My first stop was in Bolivia, where I had my MCC YAMEN! orientation. It was a chance to meet some other brave people who said Yes to Jesus’ call. It was really nice, but confusing at the same time, because we were confronted and pushed to discover our real motivations for taking this challenge.

After such a beautiful time in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I undertook my journey to Asia. When I arrived here I was so impressed: different writing, different language and different schedule, I was over 13 hours from my country, strange, isn’t it?

Learning the language, trying new foods like snake or frog, are memories that I keep in my heart. Cambodia is a very exuberant country and I have to say that Cambodians are incredible people, they are so warm and friendly, and actually they have made this transition away from my family easier.

I love this culture, (though at the beginning I had the difficult process of adapting), it is incredible the way Cambodians respect older people and how

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I keep praying for this country, because I know God is here, and he will not ever leave them.

thankful they are. These people are my inspiration, because after learning about the history of Cambodia and observing the problems they are still having, I mean there have been so many hard times, but the people keep smiling and welcome foreigners into their lives.

My job here in Cambodia is very enjoyable. I teach English to an MCC partner called DOVE,  where I have about 24 students, who come every day with the desire to improve their abilities. Also, I work with Phnom Penh Mennonite church, helping with the youth service. Last but not least, I help with a local Christian radio station, Family FM. Here I have a radio show for young people called ‘Music Touch’ so together with my partner, every Tuesday I host this program. This has been a really good experience, because many people call in hoping for advice. All of these have given me the chance to spread the gospel of God and his love.

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Postcard from Angkheadei Primary School

This is a video postcard from the students in Angkearhdei school in Cambodia. Angkearhdei is an isolated village school which receives Global Family money to provide the students breakfast at school each morning. This video postcard comes as part of a learning exchange between the students of Sarasota Christian School in Florida and the students of Angkheadei school, in Prey Veng Province Cambodia. This was the first time anyone at the school had been involved with a video production but they designed the message and the direction the video would take.  MCC volunteers Lisa Bade (Education Advisor) and MichaelBade (Video Producer) helped bring it to fruition.

 

 

MCC Partners Supporting One Another

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Written by Rath Phanseiha, MCC Partner Adviser and Exchange Coordinator

November 30th was a special day at a small primary school called “Udom Sela” in Tramkok district, Takeo. MCC partner, Initiative of Change Association (ICA), accumulated supplies and gave school kits to 220 students from grades 1-5. The school director, teachers, village chief, and monks also received some books. Some educational books were also given to the library.

ICA’s idea to support this school came during MCC’s 2nd Peace Conference in Sihanoukville last August. A staff person from MCC partner in Takeo Community Forestry Development Association (TCFDA) met the president of ICA. They shared about their work and personal stories. The ICA president shared about ICA programs, one of which is their Book Distribution project. The TCFDA staff shared about the needs of a school in his village. After the conference, they continued to stay in contact. Finally, in November ICA organized a book distribution for the small school in the village of the TCFIDA staff member. ICA volunteers collected materials and then volunteered to bring them to the school.

Currents Events Update

If you have been paying attention to Cambodian news, 2014 so far has seen unrest in Phnom Pehn with ripple effects felt throughout the country. The work of MCC Cambodia partners is obviously influenced by its sociopolitical context. Below you’ll find selected articles featuring stories that help give insight into the climate in which MCC’s partners, staff, and friends live and work.

Hundreds of garment factory workers demonstrate calling for a higher minimum wage and better working conditions. These protest turned violent; several protesters were killed, many injured, and 23 imprisoned.  The articles below describes these events:

Garment Strikes

UN Called on for Intervention

The government instituted a ban on all protest and rallies in the country.  The main groups of people that have been protesting/demonstrating in Phnom Penh have been the union leaders/garment factory workers, land evictees, and the opposition party.  Since the July Election, the opposition party has refused to take their seats in Parliament until an official investigation was performed by a neutral third-party.  This articles below detail a statement by the government about the demonstration ban and how that has been received here:

Protest Ban

Keep Peace in Cambodia and the Rights of its Citizens in your prayers