The Plight of Cambodia's Garment Workers, On Display on a Manhattan Sidewalk

Artist Kat Eng crouched outside Times Square's H&M for eight hours, sewing on a hand-operated machine.

Last week, on a busy sidewalk in Times Square, a hunched figure in a surgical mask labored at a hand-operated sewing machine. This anonymous worker was Khmer-American artist Kat Eng. According to her website, she sat in front of the flagship location of clothing giant H&M sewing for eight hours, to make a point about conditions for garment workers in Cambodia.

Eng was stitching together two and two-thirds dollar bills. That is the amount of money that a Cambodian garment worker makes in a day. The sum gives the project its name, “</3” or “Less Than Three.” She went back and forth over the papers using black and green thread, and affixed an H&M tag.

Earlier this month in an industrial park outside the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, government soldiers fired on crowds of workers participating in a general strike, killing at least four people and wounding many others. In a statement on her website, Eng said she wanted to call attention to the protests, the latest of many.

Union members in the Australian city Canberra have also been sitting at sewing machines outside the Cambodian embassy there to show solidarity with the slain workers, who had been demanding a wage increase to $160 per month. The government responded that the minimum wage would instead be raised to $100 a month, up from $61 last year. Advocates for Cambodian garment workers say many are so malnourished that they pass out at their machines, sometimes in “mass fainting” incidents involving as many as 140 people at once.

According to Bloomberg News, Hennes & Mauritz, H&M’s parent company, issued a statement after the government crackdown ended the most recent strike:

“As a key buyer in the Cambodian garment industry, we will continue to encourage all relevant parties to renew negotiations and to come to a mutually agreeable solution to this conflict,” Hennes & Mauritz said in an e-mailed statement.

Eng says in a statement that "Less Than Three" was meant to personalize the plight of Cambodian workers by sending "a message to consumer culture" - to the thousands of people who walk through Times Square and similar shopping districts every day, buying cheap goods:

[B]ehind every stitch is a hand, a face, a person….

I am here to meet you, the consumer, and to be consumed by you and to rest in the pit of your stomach. To be explicit, to haunt you while you shop.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.