Emma Hoarty / Sun Staff Photographer

Sophorn Yang, former garment worker and head of the largest labor union in Cambodia, speaks to a crowd in Ives Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

March 21, 2017

UN Delegate Shares Personal Experience in Cambodian Garment Factory

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Sophorn Yang, United Nations delegate and president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, shared her experience with the unjust treatment of garment workers in Cambodia in a lecture Tuesday.

Over the last year, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action has been working on a campaign to pressure Cornell to cut its ties with Nike, producer of most of the University’s athletic apparel. Nike subcontracts with sweatshops and garment factories in much of Southeast Asia, according to Yang, who worked as a garment worker in Cambodia.

“Yang knows what it is like to work in a sweatshop where her co-workers often fainted en masse and were not given the freedom to take care of basic needs like going to the restroom or taking a break to drink water while working,” said Nicole Oliveira ’20, a COLA member.

Across the 1,000 apparel and footwear factories in Cambodia, 90 percent of the one million workers are women from rural areas, according to Yang.

“Every day, workers commute to factories on crowded truck beds,” Yang said. “Many workers suffer from malnutrition, deprivation of health insurance and wage thievery.”

Yang recalled when a company did not compensate the family of an employee who died, an event that spurred her to lead the fight for workers’ and women’s rights in Cambodia and helped raise minimum salary from $30 to $153 today.

“It has become my passion and my life now to fight for what is right,” Yang said. “The government should be shameful, not me. The government should be afraid, not me.”

Yang stated that her biggest concern in trying to create progress is educating and changing the mindset of Cambodian women. Cambodian culture does not value women leaders, according to Yang, who said she is determined to help women understand their rights and power in society.

COLA encouraged attendees to tape an X on the logo of Nike clothing garments. Since campus contracts are very lucrative for large companies like Nike, COLA stressed that students have the power to pressure Nike and advocate workers’ rights at subcontracting factories.

“I understand the sacrifice,” Yang said. “This is the fight for justice, this is fight for these people, but the power is not just in me. The power exists in you as well, you have the power to help, and you have the ability help in this process.”