Stories of Cambodia: Mekong Blue Silk Weavers

Every day is “Take Your Kids to Work Day” at the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center:  #ChildrensDay

She spins silk thread onto a skein on the floor of an open-air vestibule with 4-5 colleagues, several of whom are orbited by toddlers. An infant sways in a lime-green hammock, as the spinners chat and laugh, breastfeed, or soothe crying babies.

One worker sits at an awkward angle; someone explains to me that as a child she was stricken, and crippled, by polio. Incredibly, she didn’t die, or end up joining the swelling ranks of disabled beggars in Phnom Penh streets. She works full time at SWDC, makes a salary, has a house, and supports a husband and child.

When the toddlers get a little older, they’ll move across a small clearing to an open-air kindergarten, where dozens of children shout and chase each other as the afternoon’s searing heat loses steam. This would not happen were the spinners pictured here employed in one of Cambodia’s many garment factories, where workers put in long workweeks for salaries that start at $61/month (minimum wage). The women would likely have to leave their children with family in the villages they come from, and they’d have scant vacation time to travel home for a visit.

SWDC kindergarten

This is not a treatise against the Cambodian garment industry. It’s a complicated issue: When is a factory a sweatshop? Are factories/sweatshops a necessary step in a developing country’s ascent up the economic ladder? Are low-wage factory jobs a viable option somewhere up the hierarchy of work from digging through trash heaps and working in brothels? Or are they just one more way for the West to exploit poor societies so that our big box stores and fashion chains can produce cheaper consumer goods? And are Cambodian and Bangladeshi garment workers merely modern-day slaves whose lives are little improved by these jobs?

Unknown, at least to me, although I certainly have some emotional opinions on the topic. But what I know is this: when small-scale social enterprises endeavor to offer an alternative workplace for a few rural women—a way for them to raise their families that doesn’t endanger their health or treat them like pack animals—I want to support them, whenever humanly possible. It’s hard to run a tiny business in remotest Cambodia, harder still to market your products to the distant West and to make enough money to keep the looms running and the kindergarten full.

SWDC weavers

I followed SWDC founder Chantha Nguon for 2 weeks, hoping to understand how and why she does it. (I say I followed her, but it would be more accurate to say that I merely tried to follow her—because keeping up with her, all the while avoiding mental and physical collapse, was not strictly possible for me.) The next many posts on this blog, and the book Chantha and I are working on together, are our attempts to answer that question.

For now, I’ll offer an introductory answer as simple as the one she blithely tosses out whenever people express disbelief at the efforts she exerts to keep SWDC’s weavers at their looms: “I like being busy,” she says, waving away the question, throwing back her head with a magical, quicksilver laugh that makes me grin every single time she does it.

She likes being busy. But more than that, she likes feeling as if her work matters. Don’t we all?

So, um, by the way? If you’re on my Christmas list this year, you’re probably getting a silk scarf from Mekong Blue. I bought…several. And they are SOOOO pretty. Not a bad way to support International Children’s Day, I’d say.

Related post: Make Your Own Job: Cambodian Edition

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