With Covid-19 devastating demand for global fashion brands, millions of jobs in Asia’s apparel factories hang by a thread. That’s why one New Zealand business has taken a different tack to keep its Cambodian staff working and well-cared-for.
To the average consumer, there’s little discernible connection between Te Awamutu and the small Cambodian community of Dey Tmey. But such is the interconnectedness of the world that sustainable fashion business Recreate has its headquarters in the Waikato town and its sewing centre on the fringes of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and largest city.
It’s not an unusual place for a fashion business to base its production; after all, Cambodia has an apparel industry that employs a million workers and contributes 16% of its GDP. But while some giant corporations are there to take advantage of cheap labour and dubious workers rights, Recreate’s sewing centre exists primarily as a means to provide disadvantaged people with a better life.
“We were never about sewing or being a clothing brand,” says founder Erica Gadsby from her Te Awamutu home. “It was more about the employment opportunities. We were just thinking ‘what’s a good industry for people to work in?’ And the leading industry in Cambodia is the garment industry.”
Started in 2013, Recreate’s Dey Tmey sewing centre employs a small, highly skilled team of mostly women to make its sustainable organic cotton garments, the bulk of which are sold in New Zealand. The business aims to “transform lives through fashion” and the staff are paid a living wage, work 32.5 hours a week, offered training in sewing and literacy, and support with childcare and schooling.
It also operates in partnership with a Cambodian NGO and a New Zealand Registered Charitable Trust, which means 100% of profits are invested back into the sewing centre and community initiatives.
For Gadsby and her husband, Recreate was a product of the many years they spent working with the marginalised people of Dey Tmey, who were originally slum dwellers living in Phnom Penh. After the government evicted them to build tourist attractions in 2007, they were relocated to rural Dey Tmey, or the “new lands”, where a nascent community took root.
In the early years, Dey Tmey had very little. There was no government support and because it was far from any jobs and schools, poverty was rife and prostitution, drugs and even child slavery sometimes became the only source of income for its increasingly desperate residents. However, over the years that Gadsby and her husband returned to Dey Tmey to work with the community, it gradually began to develop.
“Every year when we went back, there would be a little bit more development: a school, more jobs. But there were never any opportunities for women to work or improve their lives or provide for their kids. So that’s where the original idea came from, just to set something up to provide training.”
Over the past seven years, the centre has trained dozens of women in sewing and pattern design with some of the original students now working in senior roles. Sompoa, the very first student who came to Recreate after working 60 hours a week at a nearby factory, is now team leader imparting her knowledge onto new students. Her husband also works at the centre and together they were able to buy a home with the money they saved through work.
“We’re the same age and are very similar people,” says Gadsby. “Although we can’t speak the same language, I‘ve got to know her over the years. She and her husband had such a high work ethic even though there was no employment in the community. They really had a strong desire to better themselves.
“She’d only ever done year four primary education so when she first came to work she was very very nervous, but now she’s an extremely skilled woman. They’ve gone from real poverty, where they were homeless and would sleep under the table in the market place, to a real middle-class life.”
It’s not just ethical working standards that Recreate abide by. The business also aims to be as environmentally conscious as possible, sourcing handwoven organic fabrics from sustainable suppliers in Thailand and Cambodia and using climate-neutral shipping and renewable material in the production.
The garments are designed by Recreate’s New Zealand-based creative director Marielle Van de Ven. After production and shipping from Cambodia, the garments are sold wholesale to New Zealand stockists and through Recreate’s shared store on Te Awamutu’s main street.
Cambodia and Covid-19
As with many industries, sales in global fashion have collapsed in the wake of Covid-19, putting the livelihoods of millions of workers in Asia in jeopardy. The lack of demand for big brand clothing in the west has meant retailers have cancelled orders, leading suppliers in countries like Cambodia to reduce pay, fire their workers or even punish them if they speak out. The impact has been such that Tearfund is asking western consumers to pressure brand owners to protect garment workers and guarantee their fair treatment.
While Recreate’s ethical business model ensures that its workers continue to be taken care of, the community of Dey Tmey isn’t insulated from the industry upheaval.
“Everyone knows of someone who has a family member who’s had a job loss due to factory closures,” Gadsby says. “The garment industry is the main industry in Cambodia so it’s very hard going.”
But for an under-resourced country that was ranked 89th out of 195 countries for pandemic preparedness, Cambodia has handled Covid-19 remarkably well. As of July 17,it’s registered 171 confirmed cases, with 133 recovered and zero deaths – miraculous stats for a developing country with a population of 16 million people.
Like neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia’s Covid-19 performance has been credited to swift, and at times aggressive, measures in the first months of the year, drawing on experience and systems from the 2002 SARS outbreak. Even still, the country’s economy has been severely pummelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, and could contract between 1% and 2.9% in the worst-case scenario. Coupled with environmental issues and ongoing political and humans rights tension, Cambodia has a difficult time ahead.
“In the little community where our sewing centre is there’s been a price rise on food and supply shortages. And because of the drought, there’s been a water shortage as well,” Gadsby says.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’re committed to continuing to pay our [workers] salaries even if we can’t keep running because, without that money, people go into poverty pretty quickly. But fortunately, we can continue operating and can practise social distancing because we’ve got a good-sized space.”
While a crash in the global fashion trade might be a bad thing for anyone in the industry, Recreate’s sales have proved buoyant throughout Covid-19. The sewing centre is even looking to hire new staff. Gadsby says the business has been sustained by a renewed interest in sustainable and ethical products and, serendipitously, by the national push to buy local in New Zealand.
“Although we’re produced solely overseas, everything else is designed and dreamed up here in New Zealand, and people are so keen now to support New Zealand brands.”
While Recreate’s clothing is gradually becoming more popular and being ordered by more stockists, Gadsby says the main mission of the business is and always will be to help vulnerable people who simply don’t have the opportunities or safety net that a country like New Zealand provides.
“Our aim is not to be the best clothing label out there, but to transform as many lives as we can through the vehicle of being a clothing label,” she says.
“I guess I have a logical mind that tells me the huge gap between the rich and the poor is not fair. I think because we have so much opportunity being born into New Zealand that we should be sharing what we have with people who have none.
“The women in our sewing centre are no different than me, they’re around the same age they also have kids but there’s just no opportunity for them.
“It’s just a strong sense of fairness I think.”
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