Sophorn began working in factories at the age of 15. “My family was going through a difficult period where my mother was cheated on and she tried to commit suicide. I felt responsible for going out and working to support the family,” she recounts in one interview. She would walk the three kilometers to a cardboard factory near her home, working from 3:00 to 11:00 p.m. and studying in her off-hours. Her talent for sewing made her a favorite of management. She resisted favoritism and promotions as she witnessed many injustices in the factory, watching her coworkers face labor abuses, harassment, and unsympathetic bosses.
Cambodia’s garment industry currently employs over 700,000 workers and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s export revenue. Workers in garment factories typically hail from rural outer provinces, and travel to Phnom Penh to seek work. Though the garment industry is the only sector in the country with a set minimum wage, the rate is well below a living wage.
In addition to common workers’ rights violations experienced by millions of garment workers around the world, workers in Cambodia face certain unique challenges. Southeast Asia has extremely hot weather most of the year, and many factories lack sufficient cooling mechanisms. This, coupled with the long working hours, high production quotas, and a workforce that experiences malnutrition due to poverty wages, can cause mass faintings. An estimated 1,600 workers fainted in 22 factories in 2017, an increase of more than 400 from the previous year.
For Sophorn, “the turning point was when a fellow worker died on the job, and the factory owner tried to dispose of the body in a nearby river.” The owner tried to threaten witnesses into silence, but Sophorn was appalled and refused to be intimidated. “I have always been someone who liked to help other people. I tried to talk to people who might know something...I talked to more and more people, and the next morning we started a riot at the factory…and demanded compensation for the family,” she recounts. She left the factory a month later.
“My message to other women workers who aren’t organizing is the same thing I tell myself when things are challenging: you have to fight to get what you want and you have to be strong to fight."
Sophorn began attending trainings at CENTRAL, a nonprofit worker center in Phnom Penh. They support workers and democratic unions through three central principles: every worker has the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike. CENTRAL hosts trainings on negotiating collective bargaining agreements, communicating effectively with factory management, and facilitation skills for leaders in the union.
Now, Sophorn is the president of CATU, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions. CATU currently has 10,000 garment worker members. CATU organizers recruit and train local leaders to become forces for change in their factories and communities. In addition to grassroots organizing, CATU is working towards a long-term vision of democratic unionism and strategy for improving the lives of workers in Cambodia. In her role as president, Sophorn works to build women’s leadership within the Cambodian labor movement and helps women to understand their rights and power in society.
As Cambodia’s most prominent independent woman trade unionist, Sophorn has faced threats, intimidation, and violence in retaliation for her activism. Despite these menacing challenges, she remains committed to bringing more women workers into union leadership, and to leading the Cambodian worker movement to achieve a nationwide living wage.