Sustainable fashion in the Kingdom: Ensuring workers rights, opportunities

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PSE’s sewing workshop acts as a training ground for 30 women, thus giving them a way to earn a living and also allowing their children to focus on their studies instead of bearing the burden of earning money. Photo supplied

In a workshop in Stung Meanchey commune’s Trea village in Phnom Penh, women busily sew school uniforms for Cambodian children – as well as children living thousands of miles away in Europe – for one reason, ‘their smile’.

They are the women from a sewing workshop run by NGO For a Child’s Smile (PSE).

Operating in Cambodia for over 20 years, the organisation is dedicated to providing education and vocational training to Cambodians in order to provide them with greater work opportunities in the future.

PSE’s sewing workshop acts as a training ground for 30 women, thus giving them a way to earn a living and also allowing their children to focus on their studies instead of bearing the burden of earning money.

In addition to making more than 18,000 uniforms a year, the workshop has developed its own fashion and accessories brand – Le Cartable de Chanda.

But among the workshop’s more notable clients is fashion brand Extra Smile. Using organic cotton to manufacture children’s clothes to be sold in far away countries, Extra Smile was founded by French sustainable entrepreneur Samantha Thouret Livet and her Belgian business partner Heleen Devos.

They incorporated the company in Singapore in April last year and started commercial operations in July this year.

Extra Smile is based in Thailand, but operates two fair working condition workshops in Phnom Penh – PSE Sewing Workshop and Fairsew.

The latter is a socially responsible garment manufacturer that commits to better livelihoods for their local skilled team and implements environmentally-friendly manufacturing standards.

Determined to be as transparent as possible about their production chain, Livet and Devos spent a long time sourcing trusted suppliers and offshore manufacturers to work with their sustainable fashion brand.

“We were looking for workshops who guarantee a safe working environment and a decent living wage for their workers. We tried to look for one in Thailand but we were unable to find any factories or workshops that complied with our standards. However, we found two of them in Phnom Penh: Fairsew and PSE,” Livet told The Post.

“Our aim is to improve the lives of workers in the textile industry by creating decent workplaces,” she added.

Having invested private capital amounting to $50,000, Livet and Devos are working full-time on building the company, believing that every stakeholder in the fashion industry deserves to be happy – from farm to closet.

Livet said: “We believe that fashion can be fun and sustainable at the same time for every member of the industry. This includes the farmer who harvests the cotton, the seamstress who lovingly sews the hems, the children who wear the clothes, and the adults who wash and keep them in good condition.”

Designed by Nasdrovia Division, a French creative duo based in Seoul and Paris, the materials used in Extra Smile’s entire collection are guaranteed to be sustainable.

They include cotton fabrics from India, embroideries from Thailand, sequins supplied by the Sustainable Sequin Company in London, and recycled polyester sewing yarns from Vietnam.

Production manager Sopharit, along with three other female employees Khayly, Sina and Dara, make up the team behind PSE’s workshop’s fashion collection.

Livet also has five other employees from the Fairsew workshop who are in charge of her kids apparel brand.

“The PSE sewing workshop has recently welcomed other fashion brands and we are proud to be associated with their ethical workshop.

“Sopharit is a passionate, open and generous man. He listens to his workers and customers. Our team of three wonderful women [Khayly, Sina and Dara] and Sopharit handle our fashion collection,” said Livet.

PSE’s workshop offers various employee benefits, including a free six-month training programme at the PSE vocational training school, salaries above the average wage in Cambodia, and medical insurance coverage.

“They work in a secure and safe environment Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm, and rarely or never work on weekends.”

Similar to PSE, Extra Smile hopes to create more jobs that offer a decent living wage and safe working conditions so that less people will need to endure harsh conditions in the workplace.

“We contribute to the protection of human rights and recognise the right to collective bargaining. We do not tolerate forced labour, child labour or discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, disability or age.”

After nearly three months of sales, mostly to the European market, the co-founders are also preparing to sell their ethical fashion in Cambodia.

“We started sales in July 2019, mainly in Europe. In our start-up phase, we are selling online and through some high-end boutiques in Paris and Dublin. For Cambodia, we are searching for a retail partner in Phnom Penh.”

For more information about fashion brand Extra Smile, you can visit their website (www.the-extrasmile.com).

PSE Sewing Workshop is located at 402, Trea village, Stung Meanchey commune, Meanchey district, Phnom Penh. Fairsew is located Number 73, Street 115, Phnom Penh.