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Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?

Punishing conditions and low pay in Cambodia’s clothing factories are giving sex work a halo of practicality, if not respectability. Sleazing through the hostess bars of Phnom Penh, Ken Silverstein speaks with women about the brutal calculus that led them to prostitution.

Are sex workers exploited? Absolutely. But so are textile workers. When I was in Cambodia in 2009 to report on the apparel industry, I obtained the “company profile” of a firm that produced T-shirts, trousers, and skirts for companies like Aeropostale and JCPenney. It said the plant’s 1,000 workers produced 7.8 million pieces annually. Taking a rough estimate of $25 per piece retail, each employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay, factoring in typical overtime rates.

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