Garment Workers Tell Their Own Stories in New Documentary

Sorn Samnang, 26, has worked in the garment industry for nine years, shifting between five factories and barely making enough to survive. The story of her life—and that of some 700,000 garment workers in the country—may be familiar to readers of newspaper and magazine articles on the industry. But now, she and her colleagues are also telling their own stories.

“Salary Hunger,” the English version of a 45-minute documentary co-produced by the Workers’ Information Center (WIC) and Canadian journalist Paula Stromberg, premieres this Friday at 7 p.m. at Atlanta’s Edge, a cultural center in Phnom Penh.

“It’s a collaboration with the garment workers, so that’s a bit different than rolling in with a film crew,” said Ms. Stromberg, an independent journalist who volunteered for the project.

Garment workers have been featured in news stories or documentaries but have little say over the final product, said Sok Thareth, assistant coordinator at WIC. “Rarely do the filmmakers show them the clip before making it public,” she said.

Ms. Stromberg filmed and led the interviews, but the workers were involved in different stages of making the documentary, from translation to editorial decisions.

“They feel ownership of the video,” Ms. Thareth said.

Over two years, Ms. Stromberg collaborated with workers she met through WIC’s six drop-in centers around Phnom Penh.

“We were together all the time, from the script ideas,” Ms. Stromberg said.

“We [would] shoot and we showed them and let them decide,” Ms. Thareth explained. “We chose the clips together.”

The film covers the workers’ low pay and poor living conditions. But it also delves into issues more rarely talked about, such as gender imbalance in labor union leadership, which women in the film argue leads to insufficient representation for concerns like maternity leave.

The filmmaking process was yet another way to enfranchise the women, Ms. Stromberg said. The film was shot using a smartphone, with the exception of footage from inside the factories.

“This is very simple technology, and because the women sit with me a lot of the time when we make it, then it’s possible they’re learning and can make their own short movies,” she said.

This was Ms. Samnang’s first time in front of a camera.

“I volunteered to be filmed in the movie because I want to show the real situation—the difficult situation of me and other garment workers,” she said.

The film at times comes across as overly scripted, particularly moments when some of the activists advocate for their cause. But for the workers, it was a worthwhile project—and one that’s their own.

In addition to the English version, a Khmer version aimed at the workers themselves will screen on March 29 during United Sisterhood’s Workers Forum, which Ms. Thareth expects about 200 garment workers will attend.

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