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What globalization did for Deth

Thursday, April 19, 2001

Going to protest in Quebec City tomorrow? Planning to wave a placard about how globalization hurts the poor? Fine. But before you do, I'd like you to meet someone. Her name is Deth Chrib and her story might make you think twice before you march.

Deth works in a Cambodian garment factory making clothes on contract for Nike and the Gap. When the newsmagazine Asiaweek caught up with her in December, she was toiling seven days a week, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, sewing T-shirts and shorts. With overtime, she earned $90 a month -- less than you would pay for a pair of Nikes at the mall.

To people like you and me, that seems like exploitation. To the people leading the protests in Quebec City, it's an example of how poor people are victimized when giant transnational corporations shift production to the Third World, where labour costs are low and labour standards minimal.

But Deth doesn't feel like a victim. She feels lucky. Though life in the factory is hard, it's the best life she has ever known.

Now 30 and a mother of five, Deth lost two brothers when the murderous Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979; as a five-year-old, she herself was forced to do hard manual labour. After the Khmer Rouge fled a Vietnamese invasion, her family started a small farm. The work was so hard and conditions so poor that her parents succumbed to illness at a young age, leaving her alone at 19.

She left the farm to seek a better life in Phnom Penh, but the only work she could find was as a waitress at $16 a month. So she did what countless desperate Cambodian women have done: She became a prostitute. Working around the clock in a brothel, she made about 50 cents a customer. After a year of abuse and beatings from the brothel owner, she found a job in the factory. Now she makes enough to rent a room in a house and put food on the table for her three daughters and two sons. "My condition is much better now," she told Asiaweek. "I have a good reputation and society doesn't consider me bad."

When people protest against globalization, they claim to speak in the name of low-wage workers in export industries such as Cambodia's garment trade. What they forget, or choose to ignore, is that those workers were even poorer before such industries came along.

Before the garment trade started up in 1992, Cambodia was a ruined country with no industry to speak of. Now the trade accounts for 90 per cent of the country's export earnings and provides 150,000 jobs at a typical wage three times the average annual income. Working in a garment factory is no treat, but, for most Cambodians, it's far better than clawing a living from the soil, selling cigarettes on the streets of Phnom Penh or slaving in a brothel like Deth did. Like it or not, liberalized trade and globalization have given Cambodians something they never had before: an option.

The critics of globalization would take away that option. Some big Western companies are already rethinking their relationship with Cambodian suppliers because of bad press about working conditions in the garment industry. There are rumours of a mass exodus and thousands of layoffs. If that happens, Deth could find herself right back in the brothel. "I'm very worried," she said, "because I don't want to be a prostitute again." Think about that before you march for the poor in Quebec.

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