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Fashion

The Hellish Commute of the Women Who Make Your Clothes

In Cambodia, female garment workers slave away for hours on end to make fast fashion for brands like H&M and Gap. But their problems don't end when they leave the factory.

Poppy McPherson

Poppy McPherson

All photos by Poppy McPherson

It's the end of a long work day and dozens of garment workers are squeezed onto the back of a flatbed truck—the kind more suited for goods or livestock. As they hurtle through the darkness of Kampong Speu province, a couple of hours' drive outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, some send messages and emojis on their mobiles. A couple of women murmur a Khmer pop ballad. Ton Pol, 36, talks on the phone. She's desperate to get home to her four-year-old son. Next to her, Reoun Sinoun, a slight 27-year-old from the same village, looks out at the road. "Mostly, I just listen to people and try to calm myself," she says quietly.

This is the most dangerous part of a Cambodian garment worker's day. When she finishes a shift, she can't just pass out, exhausted after 12 hours stitching clothes for brands like Zara, Gap, and H&M for a basic monthly wage of $140 plus overtime. Instead, she endures a sometimes multiple-hour commute standing on the back of a truck or in an overloaded minibus. On a good day, there's just the dizziness—induced by crazy driving, compounded by malnourishment—and searing heat of the April summer or a rainy season downpour to contend with. On a bad day, there's a crash.

In April, about 70 workers were injured after a truck overturned in Kampong Speu. More than 7,000 workers were injured and 130 killed in crashes in 2015 while another 73 died in 2014, according to the National Social Security Fund, a government body set up to deliver compensation for workplace accidents. "The number of factories [and] the number of workers in the industry have grown over the years, the number of vehicles on the road has increased; therefore it's not surprising," says William Conklin, Cambodia director for the international labour rights NGO Solidarity Center.

Cambodia exported more than $5 billion in garments last year. But despite the boom, little thought has been given to transportation of workers, Conklin says. Factories give employees a travel allowance of $7 but they often end up spending more on a ragtag band of owner-operator driving services. "For them [the drivers], the more people you get on, the more profit you get," he says. "They're not concerned about safety, they're concerned about making ends meet."

Garment workers leave Sangwoo factory in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia.

The vehicles are old, overcrowded, and driven at speed. Passengers jump on and off in the middle of the road, with a few seconds before the truck lurches off again. There are at least 60 on the one taken by Ton and Reoun, and sometimes as many as 80. A bump in the road sets the teeth chattering. A bad one bounces everyone off their feet. Bodies crash into bodies. Sometimes there's a sudden, sickening stop and people let out an "oof." It feels like only a slight misstep could tip the thing over. Workers say even tiny accidents—like when a drunk driver swerves into the wrong lane and back—can send people crashing into the steel handrails, leaving cuts and bruises.

Road rules are rarely enforced in Cambodia and many drivers lack licenses. Recent spot checks on 189 garment trucks in one province found close to half the drivers were unlicensed, despite efforts to ensure they pass driving tests and have the necessary training and documentation. "When they drive, they drive like kings... just fearless," says union leader Jeang Sreymom, who works at the Korean-owned Sangwoo factory producing clothes for H&M, Gap, Zara, and M&S. Workers there say fans are not switched on despite close to 40 degree heat and there is no access to clean drinking water. Representatives of Sangwoo could not be immediately reached for comment.

Garment workers cram into overloaded minibuses after finishing work in a factory.

But there's little doubt workers end the day worn out. A 2014 study found that about two-thirds of workers were not 'food secure,' meaning they had no access to good, nutritious food. "You work so many hours and you don't eat properly," says Jeang. "When the accident happens the workers don't know how to protect themselves—they just freak out and collapse easily."

To avoid the dangerous journey home, some including Jeang say they choose to stay overnight at the factories. "I have elderly parents but I'd better stay alive and send money to them rather than take a risk," she says.

A garment worker eats by the side of the road after finishing work at a factory.

That's not an option for people like Ton, who endures up to four hours on the trucks everyday so she can spend time with her son. "Sometimes if I get lucky I can chit-chat with him, and play with him, for half an hour or an hour," she says. But sometimes he's already asleep, so she washes, cooks and goes to bed. The trucks come back to her village before 5am the next morning. "I feel so tired, so exhausted, everyday but I have no options," she says.

On board the truck, the conversation drifts from family to finances. "I haven't seen you take overtime recently," a loud woman in a blue baseball cap calls out to her neighbor over the rattle of the engine. "Yeah, I'm really in trouble with money this month," the woman shouts back. After about an hour, the truck is deep in the Cambodian countryside. The road winds across rivers, rattling over bridges. Tree branches scrape the heads of the workers.

Reoun Sinoun stares out at the road. "I feel like I'm spinning," she says. "I feel miserable inside." She dreams of opening a nail or hair salon. But as the youngest in her family, she has had too many responsibilities. Her brother needs money to study at a university in Phnom Penh. Her parents have been sick. She needs a steady income and garment jobs are abundant. "I don't want to work like a slave but, the thing is, I need to face what is happening to me," she says.

After more than an hour and a half, the truck finally pulls up outside her home. It's a typical wooden house open to the elements on the ground floor. Sinoun walks down the path, where her father is waiting. She greets him and curls up on a bench. Another day over; another one a few hours away.

Additional reporting by Oudom Tat.