From the Tropics to the Middle of the Desert: A BFC Trainer meets Cambodian Workers in Jordan

By Sokunthea Seng

Resting on a hot and dry desert plateau in the Middle East, Jordan sits a distance of more than 4000 miles from the plush green rice fields and ornate pagodas of Cambodia. Aside from their both being Kingdoms, it is difficult to find resemblances between the two countries. Jordan is a long way from home in every sense for a group of Cambodians who are working at two big garment factories in the middle of the desert near the capital, Amman.

At an initial glance, how around 260 garment factory workers and supervisors mostly from rural Cambodia ended up so far from home seems strange. However, the Jordanian garment industry is quite unusual when compared with similar industries in that over two thirds of the workforce are migrant workers from South and South-East Asia.

Some of these foreign workers in Jordan do not migrate safely and can end up in exploitative situations. This was not the case for the Cambodians that I met with in Karak. Having worked in the United Apparel factory in Phnom Penh, their factory offered them an opportunity to work in their sister factories in Jordan. United Apparel began sending workers to Jordan in July 2012. The factory made arrangements with my colleagues and me in Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) to give these workers an orientation program. Our sister program, Better Work Jordan also works closely with the factories that the Cambodians were sent to.

As a BFC trainer, I was given the opportunity to visit the Cambodian workers working in the two factories, Camel and Vega in an industrial zone in the Karak desert. The factories employ around 2000 workers, mostly migrants from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and of course Cambodia.

Jordan 262 The Cambodian workers told me that conditions in the factories are generally good and compliant with Jordanian law. With a vast factory compound and a large canteen and dormitory, the factories looked like many of the best factories that I have visited in Cambodia. The factories also provide free food and free accommodation to all workers- allowances which most Cambodian factories do not provide.

The workers told me that they normally earn US$300 to $400 per month including overtime and other incentives – at least double what they would earn in Cambodia. The Cambodian supervisors receive a fixed amount of US$700 per month.

In spite of these benefits, the workers I spoke to were struggling with homesickness and about several every month chose to leave Jordan. Coming home isn’t easy. In order to do so they need to break their three year contracts and pay 50% of all the airfare and other administrative expenses. On our plane home, my colleague and I were joined by five workers who had made this difficult decision. Two of these, Mean Kosal, a cutting operator and his wife Channa went to Jordan in September 2012 only to decide to return home just over a year later.

Kosal (27) says that it was very difficult for him and his wife as a young couple as the factory dormitories were segregated by gender and male and female dormitories were about a 20 minute drive from one another.

“Jordanians are good people and my Chinese supervisor was understanding and hard-working but the environment surrounding the factory was very quiet and isolated so I often felt depressed and lonely” he said.

Kosal said that both he and Channa struggled with stomach problems in Jordan which ultimately led to their decision to come home.

“Most of the Cambodian workers in Jordan experienced stomach problems. I’m not sure whether they brought this illness from Cambodia or because of the fact that the food in Jordan is so different.”

Kosal’s comments echo those of the other workers I spoke to who told me that although they earn more money than in Cambodia and that working conditions are good, they simply miss home. They are trying to cope with cultural differences, getting accustomed to a desert climate, adjusting to different food and being far away from their loved ones. Added to that, the potential for social interaction is limited due to the isolated desert location of the factories. This is a major adjustment for the workers who are used to Cambodian factories which are mostly located near villages.

Now, back at home for a few weeks, Channa is taking a training course in a salon and Kosal plans to take a course on how to repair motorbikes.

Kosal says he feels very good and happy in his home village, with his family and friends. He says that his experience in Jordan has led to him becoming more mature, more patient and more hard-working than previously.

Kosal says he learned that although the lure of a high salary abroad appeals to him, for now the “most important thing” is his family, friends and health.

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