Reality Show Sends Fashion Bloggers to Work in Cambodian Sweatshop
A young blonde woman weeps openly on camera, her manicured fingers perched wanly against her cheekbones. “I can’t take it any more,” she sobs in Norwegian. “What sort of life is this?” Her name is Anniken Jørgensen, one of three 17-year-old fashion bloggers who “star” in a five-part online reality series about the horrors of sweatshop labor in Cambodia. Tapped by Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, for the social experiment, Jørgensen, along with Frida Ottesen and Ludvig Hambro, flew to the Southeast Asian country’s capital of Phnom Penh, where they experienced a modicum of a Cambodian textile worker’s life for a month in 2014.
Like teenagers on spring break, the trio start out curious but carefree—that is, until they begin to come to terms with the conditions around them. In Episode 2, Jørgensen, Ottesen, and Hambro visit the home of Sokty, a factory worker who lives in a cramped shoebox of an apartment in Phnom Penh. Ottesen says in the video, “For her, this is her home; she does not think it’s bad.” S
As the series proceeds, Hambro is visibly perturbed at an excursion with Sokty to Mango, where a $35 blouse costs more than a month’s worth of rent. “I think it was tough to be at Mango,” Hambro says later. “Those who make the garments should also be able to afford them.”
After spending an uncomfortable night in Sokty’s apartment, where they stay up talking, the trio are surprised to learn of their host’s dissatisfaction with her life. “Because everybody here looks so happy. They don’t see the alternatives; they have not seen Norwegian houses.”
Hambro compares life in Norway with living in a bubble. “You think you know; you think you know it’s bad,” Hambro says. “But you don’t know how bad it is before you see it.”
It’s in Episode 3 that the bloggers report to their first shift at the garment factory. As the hours crawl on, amusement fades into anguish. “It’s like an eternal vicious cycle,” Ottesen says, forcing a laugh. “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.”
Fatigue, hunger—not to mention the crippling pressure to keep producing—soon set in. “I am so exhausted I don’t know what to say or feel,” Hambro says.
Still, he admits the situation in other facilities in Cambodia may, in fact, be worse. “The awful truth is that this is one of the few places the actually let us in,” he says of the factory, which has no toilet paper, a single fan, and chairs so uncomfortable the workers would rather stand. “I wonder how other places are, where we’re not welcome.”
But the workload wasn’t even the threesome’s biggest challenge. In Episode 4, the show’s producers charge them with feeding the entire television crew on a day’s earnings—$3 apiece, or a total of $9.
“To experience how short $9 reach is something you can’t see on TV,” says Hambro after they rustle 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.”
By the end of the series, the bloggers are transformed.
After hearing a story from a woman whose mother died—essentially of starvation—when she was still a baby, Jørgensen breaks down crying. “Her mother did not die because of illness or because she was killed,” she says. “She starved to death because they did not have money for food.”
Ottesen jabs her finger 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, which has a significant presence in Cambodia, 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,” a spokesman for the Swedish company said. “Therefore, H&M, in 2013, as the first fashion company, launched a concrete plan to enable living wages through our contractors. The measures include, among others, contributing to negotiations between employer and employee, to facilitate union organization, as well as training in rights.”
Somewhere, a Gap executive is hoping that Bravo doesn’t get any ideas.
Jasmine Malik Chua, a 15-year veteran of the publishing industry, is managing editor of Ecouterre. She has an M.S. in biomedical journalism from New York University, where she was a founding fellow of the literary reportage program, and a B.S. in animal biology from the National University of Singapore. In addition to stories published in online and print publications like Alive, Inhabitat, Plenty, The Huffington Post, and Sprig, Jasmin has been quoted as a green expert by such publications and outlets as The New York Times, BBC Radio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and People. Jasmin was previously a copy editor for Computer Shopper and PRINT. (She still reads style guides for fun.)