Economy

Young Fashionistas Sent to Sweatshops in Cambodia for TV Series. This Is What Happened!

When Norway sent three young adult fashionistas to work in a Cambodian sweatshop for one month, this is what happened.

They might have been like any other care-free, twittering teenagers when they left Norway and ventured to Cambodia to take part in an online reality series seeking to expose the horrors of sweatshop labor, but just one month abroad and their perspectives changed forever.

A social experiment taped by Aftenposten (Norway’s largest newspaper), the three young adults, 17-year-old Anniken Jorgenson, 19-year-old Frida Ottenson, and 20-year-old Ludvig Hambro, flew to the Southeast Asian country’s capitol Phnom Penh where they experienced the harsh reality of what it’s like to live like a textile factory worker for a month in 2014.

Credit: Aftenposten

Credit: Aftenposten

Above: 17-year-old Anniken Jorgenson openly wept while on camera, saying “I can’t take it anymore. What kind of life is this?”

Shortly after arriving in the capital, the teens began to come to terms with the conditions around them and visited the home of Sokty, a factory worker who lives in a cramped shoebox of an apartment in Phnom Penh. Frida admitted, “I feel sorry for her, but then I think that this is how she has lived all her life. For her, this is her home; she does not think it’s bad.” Then to herself she mused, “It’s really weird being here.”

But the five-part series doesn’t take long to show where cracks began to form. Hambro got visibly upset at an excursion with Sokty to Mango, where a $35 blouse costs more than a month’s worth of rent. Stating it was ‘tough’ to be at Mango, he shared, “I think those who make the garments should also be able to afford them.”

An uncomfortable night was spent in Sokty’s apartment, where the group stayed up late to talk. Much to their suprise, they learned that their host is dissatisfied with her life. To the question, “Are you happy?”, Jorgenson received a response she wasn’t expecting: “I was sure she would say yes. Because everybody here looks so happy. They don’t see the alternatives; they have not seen Norwegian houses.” She paused. “I thought she would say yes,” she adds softly.

Credit: Aftenposten

Credit: Aftenposten

Equally circumspect, Hambro compared his life back in Norway with that of living in a bubble, “You think you know; you think you know it’s bad, but you don’t know how bad it is before you see it.”

What these young adults had the fortune of experiencing for themselves is something not many seek opportunity to explore, or even think about in their comfortable lives. While not being able to afford the latest Iphone or a fancy car could be a travesty for youth in first-world countries, places where people subsist on less than $1 per day have other priorities in mind, such as attaining food to survive. 

It’s in Episode 3 the Norwegian group reports to their first shift at the factory. Sitting in the experience of what many other textile factory workers have grown used to, hours crawl by and it’s “an eternal, vicious cycle,” according to Ottenson. “It never stops. You just sit here and sew the same seam over and over again. I’ve been here for over two hours, just doing the same [thing]. I’m hungry and tired and my back aches.”

It’s an existence that is far from comfortable, yet it’s every day reality for many around the world. In one of the only factories that allowed their presence, there is no toilet paper, a single fan, and chairs so uncomfortable the workers prefer to stand rather than sit. Hambro ponders, “I wonder how other places are, where we’re not welcome.”

Back aches, hunger, and fatigue weren’t the threesome’s biggest challenge, however. In Episode 4, the producer of the show charged them with feeding the entire television crew on a day’s earnings – $3 a piece, or a total of $9.

“To experience how short $9 reach is something you can’t see on TV,” stated Hambro after they rustled up a thin vegetable soup with a few morsels of chicken. “What it actually costs to live here, you just don’t get to know. They don’t have money for food; the big fashion chains starve their workers. And nobody holds them responsible.”

Cambodian female workers sew at a factory in Sihanouk province, some 230 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh on September 9, 2009.   Credit: SBS.com

Cambodian female workers sew at a factory in Sihanouk province, some 230 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh on September 9, 2009.
Credit: SBS.com

By the end of the series, the three Norwegians are completely transformed – especially Jorgenson, who at first described the workers’ lives in Episode 1 as “just okay, they have a job!”

After hearing a story from a woman whose mother died – essentially because of starvation – when she was still a baby, Jorgenson breaks down from crying. “Her mother did not die because of an illness or because she was killed,” she says. “She starved to death because they did not have money for food.”

Fashionista Frida pointed blame at apparel giants like H&M. “I don’t understand why the big chains, like H&M, don’t act?” she says. “H&M is a big company with massive amounts of power. Do something! Take responsibility for your employees!”

H&M does indeed have a signficant presence in Cambodia, but declined to be interviewed for the program. It did, however, release a statement vaunting its position on Cambodia:

“H&M is clear that the wages in manufacturing countries like Cambodia [are] too low,” said a spokesman for the Swedish company. “Therefore, H&M, in 2013, as the first fashion company, launched a concrete plan to enable living wages through our contracts. The measures include, among others, contributing to negotiations between employer and employee, to facilitate union organization, as well as training in rights.”

Serving as an example of how media might be used responsibly to not only entertain the masses, but educate and enlighten its viewers on what is really going on in the world, it seems there is heightening potential for reality shows to make a difference.

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