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Michael Kouraba headshot

Cambodian "Reintegration" Program Sends Sex Workers to Sweatshops


In case you still weren’t sure how you felt about labor practices in Cambodia's growing apparel manufacturing sector, maybe this will help get you off the fence.  According to a short video posted by VICE News last week, female sex workers arrested in Cambodia are being forced into jobs in the country’s infamously inhumane garment industry.  If this is true, what to make of it?

The VICE documentary

Here’s how the claim arises in VICE’s “The High Cost of Cheap Clothes” mini-documentary, in which VICE founder, Suroosh Alvi, travels to Cambodia’s capital to investigate “what is happening to those swept up in the country's trafficking crackdown.” The video opens with Alvi reminding us that, although Cambodia is one of the capitals of the sex tourism industry, the country has been cracking down on the sex trade since 2008 when, at the supposed behest of the U.S., the government initiated an “aggressive” anti-trafficking and prostitution campaign.

Alvi’s investigation takes him first to a ride along with the anti-trafficking unit of the Ministry of the Interior, which quickly turns into the raid of a building allegedly housing sex traffickers.  The raid leads to a few very young-looking women (girls?) being handcuffed.  Over screams and much crying, we are shown a tiny room, barely illuminated by a creepy, red light.  On the floor are a few mattresses and a roll of toilet paper.  “This is about as dark as it gets,” Alvi says.

After the girls have been rounded up, Alvi turns to one of the cops and asks, “Where will you take the girls?” The cop responds that they will first be brought to the “anti-trafficking department,” then on to the unfortunately named “re-education training department.”

And now we have arrived at what Alvi tells us is the “crux” of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking program.

According to Alvi, arrested sex workers are given a binary, perhaps even Sophie-like choice:  keep their freedom and accept training for a new career; or, remain in custody “indefinitely” and be subject to abuse and shakedowns by corrupt police.  Unsurprisingly, virtually all of those arrested accept the training; according to VICE, Cambodia’s government claims to have “rescued and re-trained thousands of women.”

Yet, we are told that many of these women did not want rescuing, at least if rescuing means being forced into a Cambodian sweatshop.  Alvi interviews one young woman who, after being arrested by the anti-trafficking squad, was released into the custody of a local (unnamed) NGO, which she was told would prepare her for a new career.  She describes the NGO’s training facility as prison-like -- a place in which she was locked without any option of leaving.  She was never compensated for her time in the training program.  VICE claims to have spoken to several other women, all of whom told similar stories.

Is VICE’s claim legit?

As Kafkaesque as it sounds, there is little reason to doubt that women arrested in Cambodia for sex-trafficking (or even just prostitution) are forced by the government to train for work in Cambodian sweatshops.  After all, in recent years Cambodia’s retail apparel industry has exploded, thanks primarily to the availability of cheap labor -- so, of course the enterprising Cambodian government supplements the garment industry’s workforce by rounding up prostitutes and victims of sex-trafficking and getting NGOs to train them for work in the factories.  Yet, I still found the claim surprising, and when I tried to confirm it, I found only oblique or tangential references to the policy.  If it is indeed true, it seems like pretty significant reporting by VICE that appears to have gone mostly unnoticed.

A story reported by Al Jazeera earlier this year seems to confirm VICE’s claim.  In 2011, three Cambodian women were purportedly "rescued" from a sex-trafficking operation and taken to a shelter run by Cambodian NGO, AFESIP, which “prides itself on helping sex-trafficking victims recover from trauma while learning new trades such as sewing.”  But the women claimed that they hadn't actually been trafficked.  Instead, they said they were “willing sex workers,” rounded up off the street during a police raid and sent to AFESIP, where they were held against their will for months.  In other words, exactly what happened to the women interviewed by VICE.

It’s difficult to trace, but the Cambodian government’s current “re-education training” program seems to be an outgrowth of the work done by the Anti Trafficking and Reintegration Office (ATRO) of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation.  The ATRO was set up in 2006, in response to concerns that women and children picked up in raids on brothels were, as UNICEF put it in a 2009 report, “not being returned to their homes in a systematic and supportive way and thus were less likely to remain successfully in their own families and communities.”  In other words, there was a high degree of recidivism among former sex workers, so the government created the ATRO and charged it with fixing the problem.

Yet, in that 2009 assessment, UNICEF found that the ATRO was failing to provide any kind of  systematic support or follow-up.  Instead, the ATRO relied on NGOs to pick up the slack, many of which sought to help victims “reintegrate” by teaching them skills that would allow them to work in the garment sector.  As UNICEF pointed out, “these services do not necessarily meet the needs of clients” -- for example, “vocational training in tailoring may not provide an adequate income for a young woman.”   UNICEF concluded that Cambodia’s “available [social] services are limited in scope and act on a responsive basis since a system for social welfare which recognises the threats and puts in place measures to mitigate them has not yet been developed.”

Why this is problematic

If real, Cambodia’s trafficking-to-sweatshop program is highly problematic.  For one, if the women being forced into these training programs are indeed victims of sex-trafficking, they have suffered greatly and need help.  They need counseling and health care and access to mental health services.  They need support.

This is especially the case because most Cambodian trafficking victims are children; many are girls from poor families, tricked into working as prostitutes or sold to brothels by their parents to pay off debts, and some aren’t even Cambodian, but come from the surrounding countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.  Forcing them into the highly stressful and unhealthy environment of the apparel factory is precisely the opposite of what they need. As the U.S. State Department pointed out in its 2014 “Trafficking in Persons” report, a “[l]ack of available long-term care, including mental health services, made victims, particularly child sex trafficking victims, highly vulnerable to re-trafficking.”

The flip side, highlighted by Al Jazeera in its AFESIP article, is that, if these women are not actually trafficking victims but instead are “willing” sex workers, rounding them up and forcing them into “re-education training” programs can be economically devastating and counterproductive.  VICE’s reporting backs this up, noting that many of the so-called “reintegrated” women end up moonlighting as prostitutes anyway because they need the money.

There are plenty of other problems with this program: The arrested women are deprived of their liberty without anything resembling due process; it creates the potential for the emergence of two “classes” of garment workers; factory management can keep wages artificially low by threatening to send workers back into police detention; and so on.

According to the State Department, though human-trafficking continues to present a major problem in Cambodia, “the government prosecuted and convicted fewer trafficking offenders and identified fewer victims than it did in the previous year.”  Perhaps it’s because the government is pushing the victims into prison-like training centers meant to prepare them for low-wage careers in a crucial Cambodian industry.

Image credit: VICE screenshot

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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