In most of Cambodia’s factories, the vast majority of managers are foreigners, absenteeism is rampant, and working conditions poor. For more than a decade, garment manufacturers have simply assumed that this is the only way to turn a profit. Not so, says Mona Tep, senior human resources and admin manager at Dewhirst Cambodia.
“It’s not more expensive to do this, it’s just a matter of managing people and making sure they can provide a good output.” A veteran human resources expert with more than two decades of experience in both the public and private sectors, Tep has fine tuned a socially responsible approach to the garment sector.
At her factory, an on-site canteen ensures workers receive healthy and nutritious food, classes are provided on everything from maternal health to relationships to financial planning, and management is 100% Cambodian. As a result, turnover rates are a fraction of the industry standard: less than 5.5% compared to the average of 20%. Absenteeism is low and worker satisfaction high, leading to better productivity.
“We are able to really reach out to people and try to give them something…that not only improves them on their qualifications (because we have training), but also through social programs that are quite impactful,” she says. “The Corporate Social Responsibility philosophy is not about being philanthropic, but about sharing. It is about conviction that a better place brings better people.”
The methods come from a decade of practice. Tep, who has a masters in communications and studied communications, marketing and PR in college, began working in the Cambodian garment sector almost a decade ago – shortly after the country finally gained membership in the WTO.
As the head of a USAID project aimed at improving the sector’s competitiveness, Tep focused on making changes that would be sustainable for years to come. After that, she was tasked with figuring out how to localise the programme, transforming it from a donor driven project into a private entity.
“Where I am now is because I got to really look at the garment industry as a whole…how the workforce works in the garment sector, how they were employed, and how beneficial they were, and how much opportunity for foreign investment there could be for the Cambodian workers.”
For the 2,000 workers at the custom built Phnom Penh factory, the benefits of this focus and dedication are clear.
Even the physical plant looks better than most, spacious and bright. In addition to the canteen, on-site amenities include a library where workers can borrow books or browse in their spare time.
Like the classes, such features are exceedingly rare among Cambodia’s estimated 515 factories, which often experience issues related to bad health, foreign management and poor work conditions. Overall unhappiness has led to strikes and protests and each of these, in turn, has caused a financial blow; in some cases, major brands have even pulled out. Indeed, the last year has doubtless had some factories reconsidering whether their cost-cutting measures were worth it in the long run.
Asked what the biggest challenge is to running a more socially responsible workplace, Tep’s commitment shines through.
“I would say that it is to find ways creative ways to empower individuals, in particular women – because it is hard for people with low education to accept changes and be willing to make changes. Create self-confidence and by doing so, create initiative. Once we get in this mood and mindset, we have already won the ‘battle’. Once they are confident in themselves, they can do so much more!”
Text by Abby Seiff | Photograph supplied