October 15, 2020 | News | No Comments
The movement for reproductive justice sees women’s decision to have – or not have – children as a fundamental right. Should they choose to bear a child, women should have the right to care and provide for them; if they opt not to give birth, family planning services should be made available to enable women to space or prevent pregnancies.
In Cambodia, where women make up 60 percent of the population of 14 million people, this fundamental right is being trampled by insecure labour contracts, toxic working conditions and a near-total absence of maternity benefits for working mothers.
Take Cambodia’s garments industry, a massive sector that accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. A full 90 percent of the workforce is female, but labour rights have not accompanied employment opportunities.
Ever since the country entered into a liberalising agreement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2005, long-term contracts have been edged out in favour of short term or fixed duration contracts (FDCs), the latter being far more popular among East Asian factory owners and western clothing brands like Gap, Walmart and H&M.
These informal arrangements “abuse garment workers’ reproductive rights,” Sophea Chrek, a former garment worker and technical assistant to the Workers Information Center (WIC) – which recently staged a fashion show to highlight the issue – told IPS.
“Women employed under FDCs for three to six months, or sometimes even one month, will not risk their job by having a baby. Usually, they choose to have an abortion…before the contract ends to ensure that the line leaders or supervisors are not aware of their pregnancy,” Chrek added.
According to Cambodian labour law, factories are supposed to provide maternity leave, but most get around this requirement with short contracts, which leave the estimated 600,000 workers vulnerable to employers’ whims.
Melissa Cockroft, a technical advisor on sexual and reproductive health, tells IPS that women without access to family planning services resort to unsafe and unregulated measures, such as using over-the-counter Chinese products to induce abortions.
These methods can be fatal, but women seem hesitant to avail themselves of NGO-provided free or discounted service at on-site infirmaries, which are less confidential.
Sometimes their grueling schedules, which include 10 to 12-hour workdays with only a short lunch break in between, keep them from making appointments. Many of these women, Cockroft says, are just too busy to even think of starting families.
Garment workers’ reticence to use reproductive services can be cultural too, as talking about sexual health is considered ‘shameful’ in traditional Cambodian society.
Cambodian law also stipulates that factories provide working mothers with childcare, but Cockroft says she has only seen one operational childcare facility during all her years as an advocate in the field.
For some women, the decision to leave their children at home emerges from a desire to spare them the grueling commute – many factory workers travel shoulder-to-shoulder in trucks or on compact wagons pulled by tuk tuks, ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, down Cambodia’s notoriously unsafe roads.
Very often, babies remain at home with their grandmothers in the countryside while their mothers go off to work in the city, where they earn roughly 100 dollars per month. Union leaders are trying to raise this minimum wage to 160 dollars.
In general, though, both Cockroft and Chrek say garment workers consider themselves “too poor” to have children.
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