ad info

TIME Asia Home
Current Issue
Magazine Archive
Asia Buzz
Travel Watch
Web Features
  Photo Essays

Subscribe to TIME
Customer Services
About Us
Write to TIME Asia
TIME Canada
TIME Europe
TIME Pacific
TIME Digital
Latest CNN News

Young China
Olympics 2000
On The Road

  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Other News
From TIME Asia

Culture on Demand: Black is Beautiful
The American Express black card is the ultimate status symbol

Asia Buzz: Should the Net Be Free?
Web heads want it all -- for nothing

JAPAN: Failed Revolution
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori clings to power as dissidents in his party finally decide not to back a no-confidence motion

Cover: Endgame?
After Florida's controversial ballot recount, Bush holds a 537-vote lead in the state, which could give him the election

TIME Digest

TIME Asia Services
Subscribe to TIME! Get up to 3 MONTHS FREE!

Bookmark TIME
TIME Media Kit
Recent awards

TIME Asia Asiaweek Asia Now TIME Asia story

JULY 10, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 1

Heng Sinith/AP.
Chao Chanda, a 23-year-old female worker, was grazed by a bullet when a security guard at a Phnom Penh garment factory\fired at protesters demanding a pay raise last month.

Hell No, We Won't Sew
Globalization be damned. In sweatshops across Asia, workers demand better pay and conditions

Ceiling fans, scores of them, spin nonstop in the vast, fluorescent-lit garment factory south of Phnom Penh. Beneath them, more than 1,000 Cambodian women toil at sewing machines, assembling trendy clothing for retail stores around the world. The fans don't do the trick: by late afternoon, it is sweltering inside and women are fanning themselves. This is a sweatshop, pure and simple—and 19-year-old Chea Chan has had enough. She earns only $40 a month sewing waistbands on khaki pants for export to the U.S. "It makes me ashamed and angry," says Chea. "I make in one month what others pay for a single piece of clothing."

Last month, more than 20,000 workers like Chea walked off the job to protest low wages in Cambodia, one of the world's poorest nations and, until now, hardly a haven of workers' rights. In Indonesia—where more than 30 million people earn an average of $40 a month in factories producing clothes, shoes and consumer electronics for export—labor disputes have become an everyday affair: there were 2,265 last year. Vietnam, a communist country, has had 17 this year. Strikes in China, another alleged worker's paradise, have become more frequent, costly and sometimes violent.

COVER: Instant Classic Taiwan filmmaker Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not only a star-studded epic, but also a rule-bending masterpiece that weds martial arts with sense and sensibility
Hot Stuff: Actress Zhang Ziyi sizzles

HONG KONG: Man of the Jeer
Three years after its return to the mainland, the former British colony is showing signs of economic resurgence. But the public isn't happy with the guy at the helm, Tung Chee-hwa
Viewpoint: A legislator says democracy is losing

INDIA: Treasure Hunt
Officials are red-faced as villagers in a remote settlement loot a vast, historically significant discovery of gold and jewels

CAMBODIA: Strike, We're Out!
Asia's long-exploited factory workers are making their voices heard, downing their tools and demanding a better deal



TRAVEL WATCH: Grape Escapes in the Vineyards of Thailand

The political situation of each country is unique. China's leaders, for example, fear nothing more than a Solidarity-type labor uprising, while the strikes in Cambodia are at least tolerated by the government. But the economics are similar. Asian factory workers earn from $11 to $190 a month in frequently difficult conditions, often making name-brand goods for rich consumers abroad—and now they want a better deal. Says Hari Rusli, executive board chairman of Indonesia's Democratic People's Party, a leftist organization once banned under former President Suharto: "Expect more labor actions as the people become aware of their rights."

One of the promises of globalization is that jobs are distributed to countries that need them and can do them most cheaply. That process brought many Asian nations out of poverty in the past and continues to support millions. Manufacturing accounts for 23% of Indonesia's annual gdp. In Vietnam, shoe exports alone were worth $1.33 billion last year and are growing at a 35% annual clip. Garments are 90% of Cambodia's exports. But foes of globalization say that what actually gets spread around is worker exploitation, and they're calling loudly for international controls on sweatshops, child labor and other ill effects of the rush for cheap labor.

What is surprising is that low-cost laborers in Asia are suddenly finding the power of protest, though they're hardly in lock-step. In China, for example, virtually all labor actions involve unpaid wages at struggling state-owned factories, imbuing those strikes with an ominously anti-government color. In Indonesia labor unrest is a part of that country's newly flowering democracy: during the 32-year rule of Suharto, labor activists were jailed and only one government-run union was allowed to operate. Today, there are 22 labor federations and some 915,000 work days were lost in labor disputes last year. In Vietnam, there were 63 strikes in 1999, most at factories run by foreign companies.

Cambodia's nationwide strikes last month were the largest in the country's recent history. The complaint was a simple one: workers in Cambodia's 200 garment factories wanted an increase in their $40 monthly wage. After six days, the strikers returned to work on a promise that their demand would be discussed by the government's Labor Advisory Board. Factory conditions in Cambodia are also being scrutinized. Press reports tell of managers beating workers and denying them toilet breaks. In June, employees at a garment factory in Takhmau district north of Phnom Penh complained of receiving electric shocks from their sewing machines but were ordered to keep working. They finally stampeded out of the factory—nine people were injured in the rush—even though the managers had locked the gates to keep them inside. "I think Cambodia is one of the worst places in Asia today," says Morton Nielson, an analyst at the International Labor Organization. But Roger Tan, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Union of Cambodia, insists that incidents of abuse are isolated and that calls for a wage increase are unreasonable. "You have to recognize the reality of the situation. It is reality that a buyer, if offered 10 less per garment from another source, will go elsewhere." Perhaps. But in sweatshops across Asia, workers are learning how to rattle their chains.

—Reported by Kay Johnson/Phnom Penh, Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta and Huw Watkin/Hanoi

Write to TIME at

This edition's table of contents
TIME Asia home


Quick Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.