Battambang Textile Centre’s open-arms policy points to a new, more accessible future for employees otherwise unable to work
At the Battambang Textile Centre, a group of women sits together around a table, sewing sweaters. The scene could be found in any other garment factory in Cambodia, except for the wheelchairs.
Around 40 percent of the employees at Battambang Textile Centre (BTC) have disabilities of one sort or another. Employment is open to all, whether they are suffering from the lingering effects of childhood polio or left unable to work in the fields due to injuries sustained from landmines. Others who may come from vulnerable situations at home are also welcomed with open arms.
“Our mission is to give as much employment as possible to people who do not have support in society nowadays, which is mainly people suffering from disabilities,” said Elena Tarín Ríos, a volunteer at Mutita Textile Social Enterprise, which runs the Centre.
To that end, the factory is organised to make working on and navigating its floors as easy as possible. Everywhere ramps replace stairs, and tables are the perfect height for wheelchair accessibility. Toilets and water sources are also set up for easy access. A rent-house with all the same accessibility features as the factory is made available to employees, so that they don’t have to commute from their often-distant homes in the countryside.
The textile centre started in 2012 as a joint initiative with Spanish textile company Ibercotton. It began as a small workshop and rapidly expanded. When Ibercotton relocated its production to Ethiopia, BTC transformed into a business able to source and manage clients and handle every stage of the production process, from design to finishing. Nowadays, the factory can produce up to 15,000 garments a month, split between contracts for buyers and the Centre’s own knitwear brand, Mutitaa.
BTC’s efforts to facilitate ease of work haven’t required any big investments or dramatic changes. Rather, they are an aggregation of minor alterations, which when put together create a benefit far greater than the sum of their parts. It would be a relatively straightforward process to make these changes at other garment factories in Cambodia, noted Tarin Ríos, and would require little in the way of capital investment.
“I think it is seen as more of a problem than it is,” she said. “It is not so difficult to adapt a workplace for people with disabilities; you just need to want to do it.”
While the investment to adapt a workplace is small, it provides an incalculable impact for those people with disabilities who now are able to work, either again or for the first time. Indeed, it has returned dignity to the disabled employees of BTC, enabling them to provide for their families rather than just being provided for.
“We have many examples of people who used to be sitting in their houses and now they are providing a salary to their kids, and their kids are getting an education,” said Tarin Ríos. “Their life has really changed.”