Since last December, I have been following the impact of the economic downturn in the Southeast Asian countries where I have worked for almost two decades. The deep recession quickly affected developing countries, even countries such as Laos and Cambodia, who are less tied to the financial sectors of the economy.
During my trip last week to Cambodia, I saw firsthand just how hard hit the country is -- worse than anything I had seen reported. Since the mid-1990s, Cambodia has had many apparel factories open and a substantial number of jobs created, with more than 90% of Cambodia's exports from the garment sector. But due to the recent decrease in consumer buying worldwide, there is a fall in the demand for goods. Garment factory after garment factory in Cambodia have closed, and many others have greatly downsized. It is estimated that 70,000 jobs have recently been lost. Most of these workers are women between the ages of 18-26; and without these jobs, they are in serious trouble. Majority of these women come from villages and are the primary earner for the family, sending money back every month for their families and communities.
These rural communities rely on family members working at urban factories for their food, housing, education and health care. With a lack of employment in the villages, women are forced to look for alternative work in the city. The problem is that there is no other work.
Economic options for these women are bleak. Many end up in the sex trade or migrating illegally, where some fall prey to human trafficking. Official reports of migration are approximately 200,000 but many believe that the actual number is higher. According to the World Bank, more than 200,000 people in Cambodia may drop back into poverty this year alone due to the economic crisis, with the potential of hundreds of thousands more if the downturn continues.
The good news is that many groups, including large international brand-name apparel companies, non-profit organizations and international institutions, such as the International Labor Organization, are already in Cambodia. They are all concerned and interested in helping with this situation and what is needed is a collaborative effort. If all these organizations could come together and agree on what roles to play, the best initiatives to create and to act quickly, we could possibly stop the job losses and hopefully regain some of the 70,000 jobs lost.
The long-term outlook for Cambodia in regards to the apparel industry is good. Its competitiveness and past performances make it a sound investment for a collaborative initiative. Nonprofits could assist in education and health care. Apparel companies, in partnership with other organizations, could cover minimum salaries and training programs for future skills. And since bank lending has tightened, trade finance groups could help with cash flow for garment companies.
But the time is now. Every month a woman is out of work and has no salary, she is pushed into a more difficult economic situation. And once entering the sex trade industry, few women leave. Service programs to help sex workers rehabilitate and train for other work currently fail at very high rates.
Many see the results of human trafficking and want to get involved; but more importantly, the focus should be on empowering the mechanisms to prevent it. It may seem obvious but supporting and training women for vocational work is not just an economic engine for the country but a deterrent from the cultural and community destruction that trafficking creates. And prevention and sustainable jobs is the key.