From the very first impression, Sabrina Garment Manufacturing Corporation challenges the commonly held image of apparel-producing factories in Cambodia. Through the media, we are provoked to imagine a dreary scene: sweltering sweatshops crowded with underpaid and overworked employees, endless piles of fabric, and autocratic supervisors pushing production to meet strict buyer deadlines.
One walk through the Sabrina plant, in Kampong Speu province just a few kilometers south of Phnom Penh, reveals a well-oiled machine, where workers are inspired, rather than ordered, to meet deadlines, and where the floor staff – 95% female – is overseen by a team of middle managers equipped with the knowledge and understanding to meet their needs.
Corporate Social Responsibility is the continuing commitment by businesses to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families, as well as of the local community and society at large.
“Our CSR policies promote healthy relationships between management and workers,” says Nicole Chu, director of corporate social responsibility (CSR) at Sabrina. “Given the majority of workers are female it makes sense to have female managers.”
Touring the factory, it is apparent that females reign supreme. Overseeing production lines, mostly, were Cambodian women, and the sounds filling the air were of praise and positivity.
According to company president Susan Chen, Sabrina currently employs 125 Cambodian production line leaders and section heads, 85 of whom are female. A further 84 technical support staff from China assist.
“We promote the local Khmer staff into line leadership roles,” she explains. “While the Chinese leaders mainly focus on the technical side of things, we encourage the locals to enhance themselves as leaders. In the beginning they are very scared and lack the confidence they need.”
Sabrina prides itself on using a corporate model that encourages women’s empowerment and does not tolerate discrimination. Leaders are created through skills training, and female-specific issues such as reproductive health are addressed in a sensitive way through specifically designed education programmes, rather than being ignored, as is the case in many low-skilled sectors. But the focus on women is no coincidence.
Sabrina currently employs 125 Cambodian production line leaders and section heads, 85 of whom are female.
“ WE PROMOTE THE LOCAL KHMER STAFF INTO LINE LEADERSHIP ROLES. ”
-Susan Chen, President, Sabrina
In recent years, the global garment industry has been subject to increased scrutiny with consumers increasingly concerned about whether products they are buying have been produced in humane conditions – an issue that resonates strongly in the cutthroat garment industry.
Around the world, staff of garment factories have caught on and taken to the streets to demand better treatment, and Cambodia and Sabrina are no exception.
In 2013, Sabrina staff protested to demand better wages and conditions. And while the outcome of the protest was arrests and charges for unionists who led the action, the message from the staff did not go unheard.
After initially being unsure of how to deal with the discontent, Chen says that management took a step back and devised a plan to listen more closely to the wants and needs of the people who are responsible for turning the fabric into sportswear.
From Turmoil, a Lesson
“We learnt that we needed to tackle things internally first, so we enhanced communication channels with the union and workers through joint meetings and allowed our HR department and plant managers to play a stronger, proactive role,” she explains.
With increased pressure on the industry, wages have risen significantly in the past few years, and staff at Sabrina are staying in the job longer and being paid better than most in the sector, according to senior strategic director David Tang.
The average wage for basic production staff is around $136 at Sabrina, one of the few factories to pay above the minimum wage of $128, he says. In addition, the company allows the International Labor Organisation to conduct annual factory audits to ensure they remain accountable to international industrial human rights standards.
“Sabrina has built a reputation by offering job stability, above-industry pay and labour law compliance where the average period of employment at Sabrina is 7.3 years,” he explains. “For the duration of our operations in Cambodia, we have only experienced one strike in 2013; the truth was that the majority of protesters weren’t employees of Sabrina. Strikes were happening nationwide at that time.”
“ THE FREE MEAL EVERY DAY IS VERY SATISFYING AND I DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT BEING HUNGRY ANYMORE. ”
– An, Line Production Supervisor
US sportswear giant Nike, which has sourced from Sabrina for the past 26 years, also weighed in at the time of the strikes, another factor which has driven Sabrina’s improved CSR practices.
“After the strikes in 2013, our client brands made more frequent visits to our sites to check up on us and interview our workers randomly without management being involved. None of our brands have ever reduced their orders with us,” says Chu.
A Responsibility to be Responsible
In fact, CSR is taken with the highest of seriousness at Sabrina, with Joyce Chou, executive director and heir to the company’s Taiwanese founder, Masal Chou, dedicating 8% of annual expenditure to such programmes, according to Tang.
The firm has grown steadily since its incorporation in 1998 and plans for its workforce of almost 10,000 to expand to 12,000 by mid-2016, according to Tang, who says that the company understands the way Cambodian families are structured and that Sabrina is crucial to the welfare of many more than those who arrive at the factory each morning.
“The livelihood earnt by our employees reaches far beyond our employee base into the wider community,” he says. “Upon this notion, our leadership started to acknowledge what Sabrina can do to reach even beyond that.”
“Since we are the investors here, we know that people are our assets and we are not only taking care of our workers but also their families. Our aim is to increase their quality of life,” adds Chen.
Sabrina has run several community-based CSR programmes over the years, but one of its most lauded is its in-house initiative to provide all staff with a free lunch.
“Food provision programmes are not a very common practice in garment and footwear factories in Cambodia,” says Camilla Roman, deputy programmes manager for Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), an ILO watchdog.
The free lunch program was introduced after a study last year by BFC and Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD) found that 43% of garment workers suffered from anaemia and 15% of workers were underweight according to the Asian Body Mass Index (BMI).
The baseline report indicated that anaemia can lead to chronic fatigue and difficulty concentrating – all of which risk not only worker health, but also factory productivity. Addressing nutrition and food security among staff was an obvious route to take, according to Sabrina factory management. By implementing a food provision programme, Sabrina is role modelling an industry standard of practice of contributing to the wellbeing of one of their major assets – their staff.
“Since we started our massive canteen operations providing almost 10,000 free lunches every day, the feedback has been so positive and it breaks our hearts for not doing it earlier,” says Tang. “Many of our staff told us they have never been so full, have gained weight and look forward to lunch. Hagar Catering is our supplier and they have done an excellent job.”
The initial setup cost of the canteen was $3 million and the ongoing catering and maintenance costs are around $2 million per year.
Touring the immaculate canteen during mealtime suggests that the investment was worth every cent. Hundreds of workers quietly organised themselves into queues helping themselves to dishes of fish, soup and rice. Seated at long trestle tables, staff appeared to enjoy the menu and many took second servings from catering staff making rounds. Around them, laminated signs on the walls depicted dining etiquette, with messages about eating calmly and quietly, and disposing of waste appropriately.
“The free meal every day is very satisfying and I don’t have to worry about being hungry anymore,” says An, a 34-year-old sewing line supervisor. “I have been working at Sabrina for 16 years; it’s a very good working environment and I’m happy being here.”
Another positive outcome from the canteen initiative is that sick leave has reduced significantly, which benefits production and bottom lines. What’s more, nothing is wasted at the Sabrina canteen. All leftovers are recycled as animal feed.
Ongoing Evolution/Local Focus
Looking forward in a rapidly changing market with tight margins and greater accountability, Sabrina’s strategy to remain at the forefront of the industry is through continued innovation. It will continue to build its labour force with a focus on gender equality, empowerment and respect.
Sabrina allows the International labor organisation to conduct annual factory audits to ensure they remain accountable to international industrial human rights standards.
While increasing the proportion of local staff (foreigners already make up just 3.5% of the workforce), Sabrina will also continue its programmes to improve communication between locals and foreigners, most of them Chinese, Tang says.
“We have a plan to localise this further, reducing this to less 2% within the next three years. Sabrina actively encourages their local management to be bilingual and provides weekly Khmer and Chinese language classes to help bridge any gaps in communication.”
And, acknowledging that its loyal and hardworking staff are vital to its sustainability, Sabrina will continue to make its greatest asset feel secure and valued in their jobs, says Chu. “They are not a ‘machine’ that produces garments; they are people. We generate a culture of respect at Sabrina.”
Text by Jessica Sander | Photograph by Antoine Raab
Words by Jessica Sander |Photographs by Antoine Raab