Reality Show Sends Young Fashionistas to Work in Cambodian Sweatshop

by , 01/23/15   filed under: Worker Rights

Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion, Aftenposten, sweatshops, sweatshop workers, sweatshop labor, forced labor, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, Norway, eco-fashion documentaries, eco-fashion films, Anniken Jørgensen, Frida Ottesen, Ludvig Hambro

A young blonde woman weeps openly on camera, her manicured fingers perched wanly against her cheekbones. “I can’t take it any more,” she sobs in Norwegian. “What sort of life is this?” Her name is Anniken Jørgensen, one of three young fashion enthusiasts who “star” in a five-part online reality series about the horrors of sweatshop labor in Cambodia. Tapped by Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, for the social experiment, 17-year-old Jørgensen, along with 19-year-old Frida Ottesen and 20-year-old Ludvig Hambro, flew to the Southeast Asian country’s capital of Phnom Penh, where they experienced a modicum of a Cambodian textile worker’s life for a month in 2014.



Like teenagers on spring break, the trio start out curious but carefree—that is, until they begin to come to terms with the conditions around them. In Episode 2, Jørgensen, Ottesen, and Hambro visit the home of Sokty, a factory worker who lives in a cramped shoebox of an apartment in Phnom Penh. “I feel sorry for her, but then I think that this is how she has lived all her life,” Ottesen says in the video. “For her, this is her home; she does not think it’s bad.” She muses: “It’s really weird being here.”

As the series proceeds, cracks begin to appear. Hambro is visibly perturbed at an excursion with Sokty to Mango, where a $35 blouse costs more than a month’s worth of rent. “I think it was tough to be at Mango,” Hambro says later. “Those who make the garments should also be able to afford them.”

RELATED | Are Cambodia’s Sex Workers Being Forced Into the Garment Trade?

After spending an uncomfortable night in Sokty’s apartment, where they stay up talking, the trio are surprised to learn of their host’s dissatisfaction with her life. “I was sure she would say yes,” Jørgensen says. “Because everybody here looks so happy. They don’t see the alternatives; they have not seen Norwegian houses.” She pauses. “I thought she would say yes,” she adds softly.

Hambro, equally circumspect, compares life in Norway with living in a bubble. “You think you know; you think you know it’s bad,” Hambro says. “But you don’t know how bad it is before you see it.”

Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion, Aftenposten, sweatshops, sweatshop workers, sweatshop labor, forced labor, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, Norway, eco-fashion documentaries, eco-fashion films


It’s in Episode 3 that the Norwegians report to their first shift at the garment factory. As the hours crawl on, amusement fades into anguish. “It’s like an eternal vicious cycle,” Ottesen says, forcing a laugh. “It never stops. You just sit here and sew the same seam over and over again. I’ve been here for over two hours, just doing the same [thing]. I’m hungry and tired and my back aches.”

Fatigue, hunger—not to mention the crippling pressure to keep producing—soon set in. The struggle on their faces is plain. “I am so exhausted I don’t know what to say or feel,” Hambro says.

RELATED | H&M’s Cambodian “Poverty Pay” Scandal Exposed on Swedish TV

Still, he admits the situation in other facilities in Cambodia may, in fact, be worse. “The awful truth is that this is one of the few places the actually let us in,” he says of the factory, which has no toilet paper, a single fan, and chairs so uncomfortable the workers would rather stand. “I wonder how other places are, where we’re not welcome.”

But the workload wasn’t even the threesome’s biggest challenge. In Episode 4, the show’s producers charge them with feeding the entire television crew on a day’s earnings—$3 apiece, or a total of $9.

“To experience how short $9 reach is something you can’t see on TV,” says Hambro after they rustle up a thin vegetable soup with a few morsels of chicken. “What it actually costs to live here, you just don’t get to know. They don’t have money for food; the big fashion chains starve their workers. And nobody holds them responsible.”

Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion, Aftenposten, sweatshops, sweatshop workers, sweatshop labor, forced labor, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style, workers rights, human rights, Norway, eco-fashion documentaries, eco-fashion films, Anniken Jørgensen, Frida Ottesen, Ludvig Hambro


By the end of the series, the three are transformed, particularly Jørgensen, who described the workers’ lives in Episode 1 as “just okay; they have a job!”

“I have this idea that so many people around the world are unnecessary,” she tells the camera in the final episode, her cheeks moist with tears. “They are nothing and they do nothing all their life.”

After hearing a story from a woman whose mother died—essentially of starvation—when she was still a baby, Jørgensen breaks down crying. “Her mother did not die because of illness or because she was killed,” she says. “She starved to death because they did not have money for food.”

RELATED | Cambodian Garment Workers Are Working Themselves to Death

Ottesen jabs her finger at apparel giants like H&M. “I don’t understand why the big chains, like H&M, don’t act?” she says. “H&M is a big company with massive amounts of power. Do something! Take responsibility for your employees.”

H&M, which has a significant presence in Cambodia, declined to be interviewed for the program. It did, however, release a statement vaunting its position on Cambodia.

“H&M is clear that the wages in manufacturing countries like Cambodia [are] too low,” a spokesman for the Swedish company said. “Therefore, H&M, in 2013, as the first fashion company, launched a concrete plan to enable living wages through our contractors. The measures include, among others, contributing to negotiations between employer and employee, to facilitate union organization, as well as training in rights.”

The show, H&M added, does not represent its efforts at social responsibility. “The comments give a wrong picture of the work we do around the working and salary conditions at our contractors,” it said.

Somewhere, a Gap executive is hoping that Bravo doesn’t get any ideas.

Correction: Jan. 28, 2015
A previous version of the article referred to Jørgensen, Ottesen, and Hambro as “fashion bloggers.” Only Jørgensen has a fashion blog. The other two were avid consumers.

+ Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion

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22 Responses to “Reality Show Sends Young Fashionistas to Work in Cambodian Sweatshop”

  1. says:

    Whenever I tell people I sew costumes for a living, they’re surprised it’s so much work and that I actually get paid for it. Although my living and work conditions are nowhere near as poor as these workers in Cambodia, I understand how hard it can be on your body and how you struggle with multiple jobs just to cover your rent. I hope to advocate more for ethical fashion so these workers don’t have to continue to be in these awful and inhumane conditions.

  2. l says:

    This is why I check all tags and try to buy Made in USA as much as possible or from a country that doesn’t use sweat shop labor. You cannot blame the big companies. You have to start with you and an awareness and stop buying clothes and items made in other countries. If every consumer did that the large companies would have a problem and maybe re-evaluate what they are doing?

  3. jenstotland (@jenstotland) says:

    @H&M, prove it. Third party auditors.

  4. lo says:

    These are 17 year olds…send them to ANY job and they’d weep.

  5. Brooke Vlasich says:

    I agree with checking the tags and supporting companies that don’t use sweat shop labor in other countries. Supporting a movement like that would cause the larger companies to loose money and re-evaluate their policies and procedures.

  6. remy zero says:

    i lived in Cambodia for 15 years. my income is from music i made in Hollywood in my 20`s. now i am back in usa. it is HELLISH how they treat the poor girls at the garment factories. after work they are hearded, standing, into a `pig -truck` and driven to their sleeping `quarters`, tiny cubicles….. they just went on strike to raise the minimum wage to $140 per month, and they `won`, but many manufacturers are moving to Myanmar or Laos, where `slave-labor` will still make fat white assholes able to cram their politics down our throats. i HATE this stuff……

    remy zero

  7. digit says:

    Go take a look at Monkee Jeans. Its beautiful. It WILL make you smile. No blood, no sweat, no tears. For real. X

  8. mary ann tonn says:

    So sad to hear of this. Just watched Under Cover Boss U S mega giant in the low cost high fashion clothing line who opens stores in low income neighborhoods. He uses low income black workers and underpays them, no doubt buys in large quantities off shore. They said they made 55 million selling these to the low income folks who have no other option but to buy there. Seems to me the poor are being exploited here as well. Check out the last airing to see what l mean. It’s easy for those who can afford to make a choice no to shop there. We have Walmart here who do the same, what’s up with that. The poor need clothes and food so Walmart branched out. Their parking lots are always full.

  9. remy zero says:

    SO MUCH Exploitation in this world…….depressing….

  10. a3katie says:

    Check out sustainable, ethical & gorgeous clothing from People Tree in the UK. They are the first clothing company to achieve the World Fair Trade badge!

  11. cmg says:

    What a mess! Random thoughts on the whole thing:

    Majority of fashion media push people to have lots of clothes and to replace them constantly for newer ones . Customers reacting to these “must haves” and “shop this look” articles go shopping. But clothes need to be cheap or buyers cannot afford the many they “need.” So manufacturers use cheap labor and cheap materials to satisfy this artificially created demand. (Oh and yes,they pay for the ads exhorting this behavior.)

    Okay, how do we change the culture? Will it ever be possible that ordinary people will just want to have a few, well-made pieces of clothing that will last a few years and be content with buying only a few new things a year?

    If people did start buying far fewer clothes, what happens to all the workers in the slave labor factories….are their jobs the best thing they can find to survive, send money home, etc.?

    What happens to all the cotton, silk, linen, wool, polyester etc. producers? Now how do they make a living? (Cotton and polyester and even sheep – if you let them stomp and overgraze their pastures to death – are environmental nightmares!) Producing less of these materials and doing it in a more sensible way would be great and should happen pretty darn soon. But still…..what happens to all the people making a living in these activities??

  12. hannelore grill says:

    You have a good point cmg. Still, there should not be a problem to make a living also with a small cloth intustry. There are a lot of things that need to be done all the time and everywere. The problem is that nobody wants to pay for those jobs. So what we really need are two things:
    1. a redistribution of money
    2. a new approach where we value services more than things. The things we produce should only be those we need for a good living. Overconsumption and “throwaway” must come to an end and a better recycling industry with new Research how to recycle must be built up.

  13. UnderTheRoot says:

    So you say that you want to make money in the fashion industry? We, as a people, can turn it towards a different path. The comments in this article pose solutions. It begins when you step out your door to go to buy go to buy go to buy.

  14. ariblair says:

    “The show, H&M added, does not represent its efforts at social responsibility. “The comments give a wrong picture of the work we do around the working and salary conditions at our contractors,” it said.” Sickening. The show represented their efforts 100% truthfully, and their efforts are pitiful. These corporations need to be held responsible when they speak bold faced lies as if they were fact, or we can say goodbye to freedom.

  15. iod says:

    It’s the consumer’s fault that this happens. The increasing demand for higher quality goods with more functionality at lower and lower prices forces the industry to make bad sourcing decisions. If consumers were willing to pay what something is actually worth we could start to make changes but when I hear that $39 is too expensive for a fleece hoodie then I have to find a way to make it for less money – enter unscrupulous manufacturers. It is all the consumer’s fault so stop being smug that you read country of origin labels and start paying a fair price for the work that went into making your bougie clothing.

  16. madesafe says:

    As previous commenter “I” says: Check your tags! Buy from responsible companies that produce in the USA or other countries with fair labor laws. Choose natural fabrics over petro-laden synthetics. And be vocal in your choices! Spread the word.

  17. rachel965 says:

    So funny you point out H&M. This whole fast fashion thing is bad news all around. These sweatshop nations sell their own people into these types of trade agreements. Real fashion people don’t buy cheap shit made from synthetic fibers. The supply chain for fashion is a very complex system. Sourcing and manufacturing are so far away from the retail aspect of the business.

  18. stevec says:

    I have spent some time in Phnom Penh, and in Prey Veng province… Trust me.The Western world has NO idea what poverty is. None.

  19. fourgaia says:

    We need to stop trying to fix our problems using the framework that we currently exist in. Our whole paradigm of working, earning, consuming is at the root of our problems. Why do we prop up and support a pay-to-live structure? It is not a mandate handed down from a god on high; this is a man-made system kept in place to serve a relative few. Envision a new world, and then do the work to make it happen. Vision! Vision! Vision!

  20. chadechic says:

    Great video. I look forward to reading more in the future. If you are interested in my perspective on fashion check out my blog here

  21. jjyoucan says:

    I see this no difference from misleading, misperception, and SLAVERY! I have never been sucked into the fashion “who wears what”. How swallow and how egocentristic! If you were given just one more day to live would you spend it shopping for clothing? I think not! How about some real reflection people!

  22. kim smith says:

    I travel to Cambodia once every year …it is easy to see how large companies can be fooled into believing they are doing the right thing by the workers in these sweat shops ….unless somebody was to go and pay each and every employee personally there is NO way to ensure they are being paid correctly …trying to help anyone in Cambodia is very hard …its a very dog eat dog society …we pay school fees for 12 children and take them gifts ….but we go there and do it personally otherwise we know they would get very little ,a begging nation that is happy to take whatever crumbs are thrown their way ….extorted and exploited by their wilier own and anyone else corrupt enough to take advantage of them …very sad way of life …but truly beautiful people ..corrupt money hungry governments create so many problems all over the world …Bali is yet another story very similar :(

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