This past April, we traveled to Cambodia to visit with our artisan partners there and check in on how their projects were going. During our visit we sat down with San, who runs our Cambodia production, to chat about her work and her story. We’re so excited to share some of this conversation with you! But first, let’s catch up a little bit on the history of our ethical production in Cambodia.
We started making things in Cambodia in 2018, when we learned about a company called Friends-International through the NGO grapevine. The branch of Friends that we worked with operated in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they provided social services for street kids and provided their parents with safe & fairly paid employment in textile jobs. It turns out it’s easier to make your kid go to school, if you aren’t worried about putting food on the table. Friends’ social mission was very impactful, and we were so excited to partner with them.
Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit in 2020 and a tidal wave of global complications ensued, Friends closed down operations in Cambodia. This left us in a logistical bind, but much more critically, it left 17 people in Phnom Penh about to lose their jobs.
As soon as we found out that Friends had decided to close, we asked who of the team was staying. We learned that San had been working from home, and she had a group of women working with her. So we asked her what she needed, what we could do for her to help her keep it going, and we came up with a plan.
We were able to provide San with the funds to open her own shop. This meant giving advances on future orders to help cover the starting costs, and planning ahead to make sure she would be able to continue operating. We’re very proud and grateful to say that thanks to this partnership, all 17 people including San have remained steadily employed.
San spoke to us about how she had imagined that she might one day have her own business, perhaps working from the house that she had asked her husband to build for her. She had thought of this as a potential later in life prospect, a hopeful long-term plan. As it turned out, the plan became a reality much sooner than she had imagined.
San's workshop is on the top floor of her house. 14 people work there, and 3 others who live farther away work from their own homes. Since the workplace conditions are not hazardous in any way, San allows those of her employees who don’t have childcare to bring their little ones into work with them. The kids play with each other and with San’s own kids in her home while their parents work. We know firsthand how valuable this kind of safe workplace environment can be when it comes to community support for childcare – Jane’s (now 4-year-old) daughter has been a regular presence in our Brooklyn workshop since before she could crawl.
San has a long history of working with NGOs – training, mentoring, and teaching sewing. While many of her team received an initial training through Friends, San provides them with ongoing instruction. With her expertise guiding them, the quality of work that San’s team produces is truly exceptional. They are currently making all of our mini animals! We’ve been able to make these mini animals more special, with increasingly complex pattern designs, because we know that San and her team have the skills to bring them to life in production. Here's just a handful of the tiny critters they’ve made for us over the last few years:
During our visit the team was busy sewing a big batch of mini tree frogs. It was so great to see their beautiful work in action. (These froggies will be hopping onto our site in June, so be sure to keep an eye out!)
In addition to mini animals, San's team is usually working on some doll clothing. We often assign production of more elaborate items to her team, such as these excellent veggie costumes from last fall!
San spoke about how important it is for her to feel that the customer believes in her.
Jane: Anything complicated with handwork, we know we can trust you to make it beautiful.
San: *laughing* I don’t think so!
Jane: Spoken like someone who’s good at what they do!
Running her own business is not without its challenges. San shared that it can feel scary to be responsible for so much herself, as opposed to being an employee.
Jane: Making that transition in your career was very, very brave.
Right now she has one other smaller client, but we are her primary customer. Though of course we aren’t planning on going anywhere, we understand the pressure of having so many eggs in one basket. A major element of this partnership involves constantly planning ahead and timing everything with care, so we can make sure we are ordering enough units to keep everyone supplied with work. San told us that for herself and her employees, knowing that this work is reliable and isn’t going anywhere is not only reassuring but motivating.
San: We love this job because, who can give us this chance, right? I can say that it’s a good time for me and I’m very lucky.
This story of local empowerment and economic development would not be possible without your support of Hazel Village. If you didn’t choose to shop for thoughtfully designed, environmentally sustainable, and ethically handmade toys, we wouldn’t have the funds to create this kind of employment for San and her team. We are so grateful to you for supporting our small business and helping us take good care of our world and the people in it. THANK YOU!
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