Story and Photos by Rachel Bergen
Mennonite Central Committee Cambodia partners with local non-governmental organizations in Cambodia, several of which are led by women. While this may not seem remarkable to many people hailing from Western countries, it is in Cambodia. Over the next several weeks, Rachel Bergen, a SALT participant and writer/editor for the Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF), will profile amazing, courageous women working for change in their communities. These women have overcome incredible obstacles and are using their influence to support a generation of women in realizing their own potential. This is one such woman.
Tourists visiting Cambodia often bring home beautiful clothes, jewellery, or souvenirs for their friends and family. But many are unaware of the suffering behind their gifts.
Cambodia is home to dozens of garment factories. Hundreds of workers, mostly women without many other options, pack the production floors of these establishments, working long hours for little pay. Many workers are malnourished because their wages don’t cover their basic needs.
But one store’s production floor looks a little different. Staff there hand make beautiful cards, silk paintings, clothes, pillow cases, and jewellery for which they are paid fair wages. They work reasonable hours in a supportive environment.
This store is called Rajana. It was founded in 1995 by the British NGO Southern Asian Outreach in order to provide opportunities for young people to learn marketable skills, earn fair wages, and climb out of the cycle of poverty. In 2002 a group of Cambodians took it over as an independent organization and in 2003 a second location was opened in Siem Reap province.
Mennonite Central Committee Cambodia has partnered with Rajana since 2006.
Nimul Nhok is the director of the store and is in charge of managing profits, staff, exports, and working with producers.
Nhok explains Rajana is committed to not only helping employees survive, but also to thrive.
On top of their fair wages and reasonable work hours, ten per cent of each staff member’s salary is put aside; five per cent is saved in case of a health emergency, and five percent is put in a savings account.
In addition, each staff member gets $10 per month per child so they are able to attend school. The store also has a budget of $100 per staff per year to seek further education. Many choose to take English or computer classes.
In country where child labour, low wages, long hours, and exploitation are common in factories and health benefits, educational opportunities, and reasonable hours are not, these positions are coveted.
“People like to work with Rajana. Some work here for 15 or 20 years,” Nhok says. She has worked there for more than ten years, herself, but never thought she would find herself in a leadership position.
Nhok and her eight brothers and sisters grew up in Cambodia’s Banteay Meachey province and were very poor. Nhok dropped out of school in grade 8 and left her province to work as a house cleaner in Siem Reap, a popular tourist destination. She worked long hours for low wages and thought that would be her fate in life.
Shortly after getting married and moving to Phnom Penh, Nhok got a job at Rajana.
“I like the way of their working, their way of providing a freedom. I think it’s a good way for us to grow. The money can support my family in the province,” she explains.
“Most of my family, my brothers and sisters they say they can’t believe I can work and lead. They’re proud of me that I can work here. They say ‘you were nothing.’”
Nhok is happy to be able to provide opportunities for women who, like herself, come from poor backgrounds.
Leading by Example
Nhok created a system of management where five women coordinate different aspects of the store.
“They have their own responsibility, but we share experience, we share ideas,” Nhok explains.
But she oversees it all, and leads by example.
“We have to do from ourselves first, I come on time and work hard to let them know to do what I do.”
Lately the work has become more difficult. Sales are dropping, but expenses remain the same. Through all this, Nhok models strength in leadership to the other workers.
“Some month we can only sell $2000 USD and we have to pay rent fee, we have to pay salary. We just keep going. We don’t know what the future is, we just have to strong and move on.”
It’s not easy work, Nhok acknowledges, but she is motivated by the belief she is part of an organization helping people to climb out of the cycle of poverty and provide more opportunities for the next generation
“I hope their lives can change, that they can and they’re happy to live in good condition and that they can have sustainable work,” she says.