Diakonia - People change the world
Sim Sovannary and Hun Kimseng fight for better conditions at the massage center in Siem Reap.

Knowledge is a weapon to change working conditions

Massage workers at one of Siem Reap’s biggest massage centres were treated more or less as slaves. They were asked to work 12 hours or more a day, they had no annual leave and only received 55 dollars a month - until they had had enough and founded a local trade union. Now, step by step, the conditions at the work place are getting better.

Together with nearly 170 massage workers Sim Sovannary and Hun Kimseng work at one of Siem Reap’s biggest massage centres, Alaska. They testify to poor working conditions and both have been treated badly by their employer. “We’ve been working as slaves. The employer used verbal abuse and sometimes even threw shoes at us”, says Kimseng.

They were asked to work 12 hours or more a day, they had no annual leave or public holidays. The salary was 55 dollar per month and with no health benefits.

“It is a very tiring job, I have to use lots of energy and sometime my hands, eyes and chest hurts”, says Sovannary.

On average, Sovannary has to work with three to four clients, some of them up till two hours at a time. After work she often feels exhausted and almost doesn’t want to eat because of the long hours. Kimseng says that he is impressed by his female colleagues, and feels pity for them since they are working harder than the men.

-“Female workers are often requested by male customers, some of them have very big bodies and they always want a stronger push.”

The change came when they got in contact with Diakonia’s partner Cambodian Food and Service Worker Federation (CFSWF). The organization asked them about their job, the problems they faced and explained to them about the union and its benefits. Both Sovannary and Kimseng were interested and decided to attend training and workshops on labor law, gender, negotiation, facilitation and human rights. Then they gathered colleagues in the workplace to form a local union. But the employer didn’t like that and fired them both.

“When we were asked to go out of the entrance, our other colleagues also went out with us and we started a strike”, says Kimseng.

The workers wanted the employer to follow the labor law. They submitted 26 demands to the employer, local authorities and to the Department of Vocational Training and Labor who has the mandate to solve worker’s issues. With facilitation from the department and from CFSWF, the employer accepted their demands.

But in practice the employer didn’t fully comply so Kimseng, Sovannary and the other trade union members launched another strike, demanding the employer to comply with their demands. After six days the employer agreed to increase the basic salary to five dollars more and promised an opportunity to discuss an annual increase in the future.

Sovannary is happy with the changes. Her monthly salary has grown from 55 to 75 dollars and she is working eight hours per day. The workers at Alaska now have the right to 18 days leave per year plus public holidays. At the same time their general working conditions have improved.

“Personally, I knew nothing about law and rights before. But now I am happy to have obtained some knowledge with the support from CFSWF”, says Kimseng.

Kimseng and Sovannary have shared their success with other workers, helped to establish local unions and linked up to support each other. Now massage workers at other massage centers also stand up and demand improved working conditions.

“In the future I would like to see an even stronger union, confident enough to deal with the employers”, says Sovannary.