At precisely 4 p.m. on a Saturday, the blue metal gate of the Ying Dong Shoes factory slid open and a mass of pink-, yellow- and green-shirted workers emerged into the litter-strewn alley outside. Nearly all were teenage girls.
Approached outside, even the youngest-looking girls claimed to be 18 years old. But several also say that it's an open secret that Ying Dong employs underage staff on its manufacturing lines.
While employing girls as young as 15 isn't necessarily a violation of Cambodia's weak labour laws, their employment is supposed to be capped at a maximum of eight hours a day. The girls making leather boots and shoes inside the Ying Dong plant say they all work 13 hours a day during the week, plus another eight hours on Saturdays, in a country where the minimum wage is $80 a month.
Despite two decades of consumer campaigns against retail giants such as Nike and The Gap over issues like child labour and poor working conditions in their factories, the same problems keep popping up elsewhere. One government clamps down, and the garment factories simply move to other countries where the minimum wage is lower and the laws – or the enforcement of them – more lax. It could be in the cheap-labour frontier of Bangladesh, where a building collapsed and killed 1,127, some of whom were producing shirts for Loblaw's popular Joe Fresh label. Or it could be here in Cambodia.
Last month's deadly collapse of Rana Plaza, however, has upended the relationship between consumer, retailer and factory. Major retailers such as H&M, Benetton and Joe Fresh responded with pledges to improve working conditions in garment factories.
Age is another major concern. One of the main brands that produces footwear at Ying Dong, Asics Ltd. of Japan, acknowledges it had received a warning last year from the International Labour Organization that said the factory was employing at least three workers younger than the legal minimum age of 15. Several of the girls working at Ying Dong told The Globe and Mail they had falsified their identification documents, with the factory owner's tacit approval, in order to take jobs there.
The factory is owned by New Star Group, a Taiwanese firm that owns two other controversial factories in Cambodia.
At Ying Dong, it takes only a glance to realize how young some of the work force is. "There are a lot of young workers here – many are younger than her," said 21-year-old Danet, pointing at a particularly diminutive colleague wearing a pink Ying Dong Shoes shirt. The younger girl quickly hid behind other colleagues. "Lots of the girls are 14, 15, 16, 17," Danet said.
Danet and her colleague were among several dozen employees packed into the back of a mud-caked Hyundai cargo truck, clinging to a rusted metal chain that would be the only seat belt for their two-hour commute.
Another Ying Dong employee, who said she was 18 but looked much younger, estimated that about half of Ying Dong's 3,000 workers – nearly all of whom are female – were underage, although The Globe and Mail was unable to confirm how many girls were under 15, or whether those between 15 and 18 had their parents' consent.
"The girls want the jobs, so they make fake identification documents. The company doesn't care because they need the workers," said the employee, who gave her name as Jurriy.
The Globe and Mail has decided not to publish the full names of the workers it interviewed in order for them to avoid any possible punishment for speaking out.
The company that owns the factory, which refused an interview request from The Globe and Mail, has claimed in the past that all its workers are at least 18. Cambodian labour law allows factories to employ workers as young as 15 – provided they have their parents' consent. Minors are also supposed to get a minimum of 13 hours off between shifts and are barred from working in hazardous conditions.
Jurriy described conditions inside the Ying Dong plant as difficult, with staff expected to work 13-hour days – 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with an hour lunch break – every weekday, and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Sundays are their only day off. "It's very hot inside. There's no air conditioning. We have to make 200 to 300 shoes a day [per work team] or else the owner gets angry."
Asics spokesman Katsumi Funakoshi said in an e-mail that a May, 2012, audit conducted by the ILO Better Factories Cambodia program had found three workers at the Ying Dong facility who had falsified their ID documents and were "under the legal labour age limit." The spokesman said the company is not aware of any further cases of underage labour at the factory.
A Quebec footwear company, Chaussures Régence, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail that it once sourced footwear at Ying Dong Shoes in 2012 but ended the relationship.
"We had been doing [business] with Ying Dong Shoes last year but we decided to stop because of delays, quality issues [in] the first production we asked them to do. And since we have our new factory, we can make things the way we want," wrote Jean-Damien Cangelosi, quality manager of Regence Footwear Cambodia.
Mr. Cangelosi said the company was committed to being a force for good in Cambodia. "Even if costs are lower here compared to Canada, we can do things better for society in Cambodia by providing people better conditions. It is one of my goals as quality manager here."
New Star Group, the Taiwanese owners of Ying Dong Shoes, was in the news recently when another of its factories outside Phnom Penh partially collapsed, killing two workers and injuring 11. The dead workers – who were producing sneakers for Asics – were originally said to be 22 years old, but relatives have since told local media that one of the dead workers was actually a 15-year-old girl.
Three days after the fatal accident, three young women were rushed to hospital during their first day back on the job after fainting during their shifts. Such faintings – caused by a mixture of heat and chemicals – are commonplace in Cambodia's garment and footwear factories.
A report published last month by Better Factories Cambodia, a monitoring group established by the International Labour Organization, hints that the problem of underage workers in Cambodian footwear factories may be widespread. "Five factories [out of nine that were visited] were found to not use reliable documents to verify applicants' age prior to hiring," the report reads. "In one factory, the hiring of workers under the age of 15 was confirmed."
Though Better Factories Cambodia doesn't identify factories by name in its reports, it does send its findings to the factory managers and owners as well as to foreign brands that are members of the Better Factories project and source from a factory where problems have been discovered.
Jill Tucker, program manager at Better Factories Cambodia, said Chaussures Régence is not a member of the voluntary program and therefore would not have received any warning about Ying Dong, such as the one received by Asics.
Another Cambodian factory owned by New Star Group made headlines in 2011 after human-rights groups accused it of exporting shoes made inside Sihanoukville Prison. A customer of that factory is Shoemax Ltd. of Toronto, which sells the Taxi line of women's shoes to small, independent retailers. Shipping records show Shoemax has continued to buy from New Star even after the prison labour scandal.
Shoemax owner Sam Edelstein said he visits the factory every year and has seen no child labour there. "It's an open factory completely," he said, adding the workers go across the street for lunch.