Economic empowerment is a potential strategy to improve women’s autonomy in the Global South. The emergence of export-oriented factories in urban areas, such as Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, have created forms of low wage labour, such as garment work, as drivers of social, political and economic change. This study documents the experiences and perceptions of female workers in the low wage garment industry in Cambodia. Through in-depth qualitative interviews with a cohort of low wage garment workers, using a longitudinal methodology, this project examines how rural women’s migration to the city to engage in paid employment contributes to perceptions of autonomy in their personal lives as well as in their workplaces. The study utilises the capability approach framework suggested by Amarty Sen (1985) as an analytical tool to understand whether female rural-urban migrants achieve capabilities and experience flourishing as a result of paid employment.
This study finds, in agreement with at least some current research, that women’s access to low wage employment does not necessarily contribute to their improved autonomy in the workplace. However, factory work contributes much to a transformation in women’s future work potentialities and personal lives. The women interviewed in this study gained autonomy in identifiable areas, such as opportunities for self-improvement by acquiring new skills. In relation to women’s personal lives, this study shows work in the garment sector can create a space for women where they can challenge traditional social and cultural norms by asserting their autonomy in choosing partners/husbands, renegotiating parental expectations, and reorganising the gendered patterns of domestic labour within their households. This study also notes that strong social and cultural norms persist as forms of social protection, and therefore female rural-urban migrant workers cannot fully experience life outside those norms. This can compromise the potential of economic transformation to completely change patriarchal social norms and their impacts on the lives of Khmer women.