Al Jazeera‘s “People & Power” reporter Juliana Ruhfus released a new investigation today into, basically, a low-rent version of the white savior industrial complex. Called “Cambodia’s Orphan Business,” the 25-minute video postulates what those in the country already know: that orphanages are largely tourist attractions, for-profit endeavors that benefit owners by playing off Dickensian notions of poverty, a wretched yet noble entertainment for those unafflicted. An estimated 10,000 children live in such group homes, and you, the tourist, can not only stop by and visit during your three-day stay in Cambodia but, if you wish, return to volunteer for a longer stint—a month, three months—where you will most likely be asked to contribute your expertise on such pressing national topics as speaking English.
It all seems so easy, doesn’t it? You can go help out a good segment of the 14 million residents of the country, most of whom live in poverty, by doing something that comes so naturally to you that you probably don’t even think of it as a skill. Plus: kids are cute. Cambodian kids, especially.
Now it is true that they are. Cute. But it is not necessarily true that they are, technically speaking, “orphans.” In Cambodia, orphanages are, like everywhere else, homes for young people who would not otherwise have a place to live. The implication is that they do not have a place to live because their parents abandoned them, or died. But this is not always, or even mostly, the case: many orphanages in Cambodia have visiting days—days closed to tourists where parents can visit their children. Orphanages in Cambodia, in other words, don’t necessarily house only orphans.
The People’s Improvement Organization at Stung Meanchey—the district that houses the massive garbage dump that, prior to the last decade’s orphanage boom, acted as a depository for kids in a surprisingly similar manner—is help in the video as a best-practices model. Perhaps it is, but the down-the-road organization Center for Children’s Happiness, servicing children from the same public dump, was where one of the young residents herself told me she missed her mom, and couldn’t wait for her to visit, on Sunday. She then apologized, because she wasn’t supposed to tell foreigners she still had parents. She was 8. She had HIV. She spoke 6 languages.
There are in Cambodia almost 500 orphanages, and the majority rely on volunteerism to generate income. While this seems unseemly at first, many grow used to it. Everyone feels good about the work done at Cambodian orphanages, on the record. The volunteers believe they are “helping Cambodia”; the Cambodian young people, even those whose stations in life may be only marginally improved in the group home, develop an international coterie of enthusiasts and friends; and the organization, basically, keeps Cambodians—or, increasingly, foreigners who own businesses in Cambodia—in jobs, which are still rare in the developing nation.
The trouble spots are easy enough to see. Ruhfus and her crew walk in off the street and ask a facilities manager if they can take four kids out on the town for the day and, despite an increased awareness of and laws restricting child sex tourism, a few minutes later they have four kids to themselves in a private vehicle. No oversight, no paperwork. They haven’t even been asked for IDs.
Viewing the Al Jazeera report, it’s difficult to place sympathy. Two former orphanage residents are interviewed, Yan Chanty and Kong Thy, who complain of depression in the orphanage. This we would rather expect orphanage residents to experience, because it is a hard life. Forced to put on a cheery face for visitors, however, the two suffered a sort of uniquely Cambodian problem: they needed to meet the cuteness expectations of tourists. That was, more or less, how the company could survive. What we don’t like to see, but what is true, is that the Cambodians who run the orphanages keep them in deliberately decrepit conditions, because that makes the ask, from the comparatively rich tourists, much easier.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s illegal, actually, for US residents to adopt Cambodian children at the moment—this is likely true for Australia and some of the other foreign nations with strings of convicted child sex offender nationals as well—so there’s no hope that an emotional bond will grow into a permanently nurturing one. The relationships fostered can only be purely commercial.
But accurate coverage of this complex situation is not always easy to find. The Al Jazeera report, for example, opines Kong Thy’s earnings—”only $3 a day”—having claimed earlier that the average wage earned in the country is $65 per month. This is kind of true—if we look at who is earning wages at all, and what their average earnings are, and then spread this out across the number of people in the country they share those wages with, yes, we get a figure that’s about $65 per month. But we can’t pretend that the developing nation has 100% employment or that this is an average salary, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor can we, therefore, pretend that $3 per day, or an average of $90 per month—$72 per month being the national living wage—is anything less than pretty good.
It’s also unclear to me what the meaning of this kicker is: “The sad reality is that … these children could never be reunited with their parents.” If alive, or willing to step forward, the children’s parents certainly realize their kids are being offered educational and economic advantages likely unavailable at home, in all but the worst of the orphanages. That’s sort of life in a country in poverty: the 1950’s-era image of the nuclear family has little precedent in homes where three generations often live under the same thatched roof and food acquisition is a daily concern.
The report does feature, however, great interviews with folks inside the commercial volunteerism industry. It’s easy to call them jaded and cynical, but the truth is, the folks who have seen how international aid plays on the ground in developing nations and became sickened by it are the best foreign policy advisers we got.
In all, the report is a cogent evisceration of Cambodia’s orphanage system, supported by international volunteer placement agencies like Projects Abroad, which charges “volunteers” around $3000 USD per placement, sends around $9 of that—total—to the local organizations, and pulled in profits of around $3mil last year—a third of which was split between the two directors.
In this way it becomes clear: The low-rent version of the white savior industrial complex supports child sex abuse, disallows genuine emotional connection, and turns a mighty profit for the white savior industry at large.
But, you know, the kids are cute.
Now, before you ask, I’m not going to tell you who sent this, either to me, or to whoever sent it to me. I don’t think it matters and on condition of publishing it I agreed to keep all names out of it. (I have taken the liberty of keeping Twitter, You Tube and Facebook logos intact just for visual pizazz. Also because those logos are now so bland that they may actually counteract the notion that a single entity may be behind a note like this one, when in fact, it’s a bigger phenomenon than that—just try finding someone interested in “male graphic novelists” on Facebook!)
What I will tell you is that this happened fairly recently. And that the person who received it identifies as female, and as a cartoonist, although has a gender-ambiguous name (kind of), which I’m not exactly certain the marketing agent, who is also female, understands. I won’t here go into the full range of implied differences between calling someone a “cartoonist” and calling someone a “graphic novelist”, but the bottom line is that the latter was a term invented to try to sell more expensive books inside bookstores—as opposed to comics shops—which makes it a marketing term, and kind of a useless distinction. Unless you’re a marketing agent, I suppose, when marketing terms are what matters. And in this case, a “graphic novelist” was seen as necessary to the project.
A male one.
The cartoonist’s response was thoughtful and far more engaged than mine would have been, considering that the cartoonist had no hope of being compensated for either the friendly suggestion of the graphic novelist—or of landing the gig herself. In other words, by even responding, she was donating her labor, to the cause of terrific male graphic novelists.
To which the marketing agent responded, quite hurriedly:
Now, as I said, the specifics of this project don’t matter to you: it’s dumb, you can trust me on that. And the brand I’ve hidden from your view—the reason “it has to be a guy”—is equally unremarkable (although you can apparently find them on Facebook, if you’ve ever seen that site). To put this plainly: the individuals involved in this particular exchange don’t matter. What matters, and I think it matters a lot, is this logistics of this exchange:
CARTOONIST: Hm, I can try to do some free labor for you if you tell me a little bit more about what’s involved and also why you are specifying a gender for the laborer?
MARKETING AGENT: Now you must sign a NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT.
So I write about gender, and labor, and IP issues, and marketing. You all know that. And when the cartoonist first asked me about this situation, I thought it sounded bad, the perfect conflation of friendly-seeming but coercive marketing and the standard-issue gender-based discrimination that we’ve come to expect in comics. But I didn’t think it was illegal. Now I’m not so sure.
Here’s what the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says about such things [emphasis mine]:
Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex. … The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. … Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
Still, the marketer persisted …
… utilizing the “we’re all in this together!” theory of marketing (forgetting that, in fact, she wasn’t actually helping out this particular cartoonist, but using her to find one she could “help out”), with a heavy helping of “I used to be just like you!” BARF.
The cartoonist, sympathetic, understandably responded with an email agreeing not to mention her name, or her employer’s, or the client’s, to anyone. I respect that. As I said: this type of exchange happens often enough that it’s not actually just about this one bad marketing agent, or this dumb firm or lame brand. It’s about who believes who owes who what, and who owns what is said in the course of negotiating it. In an email I won’t reproduce, the cartoonist again refused to sign the NDA, and refused to recommend anyone for the project, but she did agree not to make a big stink about it.
I agreed to no such thing. From this moment on, with full respect (and admiration) for the cartoonist who sent me this exchange in the first place, I’d like to request this: If you’re asked to sign an NDA during an informal exchange, don’t do it. If you’re a female identified creator in the comics industry asked to work for free on anything, don’t do that either. And if someone uses gendered, raced, or classed language—even if we’re just talking about art, or comics—get a lawyer, file a complaint, go public, or do whatever else you have to do to shut them down.
Why? Because these are bigger issues than any individual can see. We’ll soon be releasing Ladydrawers stats that talk about average earnings by gender, average submission rates by gender, and average publication acceptance rate by gender, and they. Are. Bad. I won’t ruin the surprise for you. What I will tell you now is this: male-identified creators are earning over three and a half times as much as female-identified creators, at the same average level of experience and doing the same amount of labor in the industry, in a divide that just barely straddles the poverty line (favoring, of course, the higher earners). Those who don’t identify along a gender binary in comics? That’s where it gets really rough: We’re seeing numbers that indicate they pull in about a seventh of what female creators do. Not enough to cover a single month’s rent in any city I know of.
In other words, for people who work in comics that don’t identify as male (or, for that matter, as “graphic novelists”), biased hiring practices and our widespread willingness to remain silent about them are an issue of survival.
Angee Lennard of Spudnik Press has been making this crazy cover for my upcoming Green Lantern Press book, which you can read a little bit more about here, and which features images from Phnom Penh’s emerging middle class first previewed here and here, as well as a brand-new essay. Perhaps the most exciting part is that we had to invent a font—rather, Danielle Chenette did—which is awkward and crazy and cool. I’m working on a book trailer for it, and will post when that’s ready.
I know I have already told you about the Adventure School for Ladies Comics Intensive but there is a new, awesome, amazing, cool comic up by Nicole Boyett that explains what it is, and I thought you might like to read it, here.
Hey! I made a new book, mostly as an excercise to teach myself to silkscreen, but also because of my love of working really hard on pointless projects that end up being very frustrating involving pants! Speaking of which, I also have a new piece up on Truthout:
About a year ago, record numbers of garment laborers in factories across Cambodia—which exports 70 percent of the garments manufactured there to the US—were reported to be suddenly and mysteriously falling to the ground, unconscious. Hundreds at a time – sometimes less, although sometimes more. Workers at many scenes reported foul smells, difficulty breathing. Halting investigations took place at select plants by various parties involved: government officials; labor unions; human rights groups; business associations; monitoring organizations; and, weirdly, the international big-name brands that sell the clothes being made. A consortium of factors was considered: hypoglycemia, the direct result of workers not eating enough; minor factory infractions that managers promised to address immediately; a common cold outbreak emanating from Canada; overwork; mass hysteria; workers partying too hard over the weekend; and spiritual possession. In the end, no single cause was named for the nationwide epidemic. Besides a 5$ “health bonus” for qualifying workers, no sweeping policy changes were offered to keep the incidents from continuing.
It seemed to be just more bad luck for Cambodia… [but] the real bad luck for Cambodia … is that thousands of workers falling ill on the job isn’t enough to catch the fashion industry’s attention.
Read “The Fashion Industry’s Perfect Storm” here. (You will probably wish to know in advance that the story, which lists 3,000 faintings over the last year, is no longer accurate, as 500 more occurred within five days of publication.) Buy the limited edition red-white-and-blue silkscreened book, Capitalism and Its Discontents, here.