On Friday Jan 17, in the shadow of giant retailer H&M’s Times Square store, I wore a bloodstained shirt and surgical mask and began working behind a manual sewing machine for eight hours. It may have been easy to miss among the bright New York City lights and the blaring cab horns, but those who stopped to watch throughout the day saw that it was not cloth running through the machine, but US dollar bills.
In this performance “Less Than Three,” I chose to sew for the entire cold January day. As a Khmer-American artist, I did so in solidarity with striking garment workers in Cambodia who were forced back to their stations in fear of their lives by a brutal military police crackdown earlier this month.
By working in front of the dazzling high-tech store front, I wanted to remind consumers that we play a role in this violence. We too have blood on our hands. With numb fingers, I fed the bills back and forth through the machine, elaborately stitching together two and two-thirds dollars—the daily salary of the average garment worker in Cambodia. Fast fashion seduces consumer culture and disguises the fact that behind every stitch, is a hand, a face, a person.
The textile industry is by far Cambodia’s biggest export earner, bringing in over $5 billion in 2013 from corporations such as H&M, Gap and Walmart. This figure shows a 22 percent increase from 2012. The market is incredibly profitable and steadily on the rise, but most of the industry’s over 500,000 factory workers continue to live in poverty. When the workers began organizing against the imbalance last December, they were violently silenced.
Labor unrest intensified following the highly-disputed 2013 re-election of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose opponent Sam Rainsy ran on a platform of widespread reform including a promise to double garment workers’ salary to $160 a month—considered a reasonable living wage by supporters.
Over 400 factories were forced to halt operations earlier this month when hundreds of thousands of workers joined a strike to demand the promised wage increase as well as better working conditions and protection of workers’ rights. On January 3, military police opened fire on demonstrators in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, killing at least four people and injuring dozens.
Locals report the continued presence of armed soldiers patrolling the streets and breaking up gatherings, and many workers are choosing to forfeit their last paychecks and flee the cities where they work.
Global corporations are gaining huge profits by providing consumers with cheap clothing, at the expense of workers' lives. Simultaneously, the Cambodian government does not hesitate to kill protesters, enforcing silence on the issue in order to maintain the status quo.
It is time for us to examine our priorities as American consumers. We know our clothes are made in sweatshops on the other side of the world. So is there anything we can do about it? Despite international protests, demonstrations, petitions, and boycotts, the industrial machine grinds on. The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming.
There are no easy solutions, but the first step is to engage with the grim reality: our constant demand for new cheap clothes has an unaffordable human cost.
In the age of two-click transactions and armchair charity, I choose to take direct action and engage in creative forms of dissent. I want to call for everyone, and especially other Khmer-Americans, to join in making our voices heard. Here, in America, we have the privilege to express our critical opinions without fear of persecution. I want to collaborate on street theater and art, DIY writing and publishing, and to open space for unpacking the Khmer-American experience.
A step in this direction is the upcoming Up Srei project, people-powered media focused on Khmer women, workers, and activists through a feminist and anti-capitalist lens. Will you join me in this important cause?
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