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A Cambodian woman employed in a local factory that produces bags for designer brands such as Michael Kors and Kate Spade has spent at least two months in prison after worrying about losing her job due to COVID-19.
What happened: Soy Sros, 30, was arrested on April 4 over a Facebook post in which she raised concerns that she and her coworkers might be laid off in the middle of the pandemic.
- Soy, a single mother of two, complained about her employers at the Superl factory in Kampong Speu province, which produces bags for brands like Michael Kors and Kate Spade.
- The next day, Soy received a summons to the supervisor’s office, which asked her to sign a document acknowledging her “mistake” and that a disciplinary process will be in order if she causes another.
- Soy, however, refused to sign the document, resulting in another summons that led her into a 48-hour police interrogation.
- Ultimately, Soy found herself in the Kampong Speu prison, where she spent the next two months in poor health and constant fear of a COVID-19 outbreak.
- Soy was initially sentenced for spreading fake news, but the court responsible for her case also charged her with two criminal offenses related to provocation and discrimination.
- If convicted, Soy will spend a maximum of three years in jail and pay a maximum fine of 6 million riels (about $1,500).
The Aftermath: Superl eventually dropped its complaint against Soy after her temporary release, but she still faces the court’s charges.
- In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Soy shared her struggles inside the overcrowded prison, where she developed a persistent low-grade fever and a constant need for medication, including intravenous (IV) drips.
- Aside from health issues, Soy, worried about her family, as well as her coworkers at the factory.
- Soy happens to be the president of a local chapter of a union called Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), which sent letters to Michael Kors, Capri Holdings (which owns Michael Kors) and Kate Spade, calling for her release.
- When those companies failed to respond, the group reached out to international labor watchdogs Clean Clothes Campaign and IndustriAll Global Union for assistance.
- Soy eventually secured a temporary release on May 28, while CUMW seeks to end all investigations.
- “Superl Cambodia Ltd must immediately reinstate her with full back pay, benefits and damage compensation,” CUMW President Pam Siva said, adding that the company should “respect the union leader’s free speech and her role as a worker representative.”
On today’s #COVID19 live-blog:
1. Superl factory in #Cambodia is applying for the withdrawal of the legal complaint against CUMW union president Mrs Soy Sros. This is a step in the right direction,
but more is needed, including her reinstatement with back pay. 📷 (CUMW) 1/ pic.twitter.com/N14jh2NGzV
— Clean Clothes (@cleanclothes) June 2, 2020
Why this matters: Capri Holdings — which also owns Versace and Jimmy Choo — signed the UN Global Compact in April, affirming its commitment to corporate social responsibility.
- The non-binding pact includes 10 principles, one of which states that businesses “should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”
- Soy appears to have the right reason for her initial concerns, as countless other workers in the apparel industry have been suspended or dismissed altogether amid the COVID-19 crisis.
- “Brands should take steps to minimize the devastating economic consequences for garment workers in their global supply chains and for their families who depend on this income to survive,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior counsel in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.
- If workers unionize, supply chain partners in Asia allegedly resort to “union-busting,” replacing those workers with more subservient hires — a phenomenon believed to be fueled by systemic racism.
- “Apparel supply chains are based on an international division of labor that requires the labor of the global south to not only be cheap, but to be docile so as not to interrupt the legal looting of labor and resources that the global north depends on to maintain its lifestyle,” Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labor researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, told BuzzFeed News.
- The researcher added: “It’s clearly a racial division of labor because as we see more brands move to producing clothes in places like the USA and UK, it’s migrant workers or people of color that are working in the factories.”
Soy is back in prison as of this writing. Michael Kors and Kate Spade have not responded to calls for her release.
“What is Soy Sros’s arrest and imprisonment, if not a human rights violation? You are powerful, financially successful companies. You have the power to make changes in the fashion manufacturing industry,” one Twitter user commented. “Why choose not to [help Soy]?”
Feature Images via Soy Sros (left) and Getty (right)