An Example of Capitalism Literally Milking the Poor
Posted on Apr 19, 2017
By Julie Bindel
Editor’s note: Some names in this article have been changed.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia — I am in a clinic where local women sell their breast milk, which up until recently was then shipped to the United States for consumption.
Chanda is sitting at a table, breastfeeding her infant. She looks tired and uncomfortable. Chanda’s baby—a gorgeous little thing with a mass of black, shiny hair and huge inquisitive eyes—has been suckling for well over an hour, in between bouts of crying.
The baby appears hungry, despite her efforts to nourish herself. Sitting on the table in front of the baby is a container full of a magnolia-colored liquid, which will soon be transferred to a sterile bag and stored in a freezer. Chanda is sitting alongside five other women who are expressing their milk into plastic containers. The women make 50 cents an ounce. Until recently, their milk was sold for up to eight times that amount in the U.S to women unable to breast-feed their own babies. At least, that is what the Cambodian women were told by the brokers who combed neighborhoods looking for pregnant or nursing women to sell their milk. In reality, it was also purchased by parents of surrogate babies and fitness freaks who believe the hype about breast milk being a “superfood,” among other groups willing to pay for a product known as “liquid gold” on the commercial market.
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Selling breast milk is nothing new, but Utah-based Ambrosia Labs, which runs the clinic in Phnom Pehn where I met Chanda and her baby, claims to be the first company to have imported human breast milk to the U.S. from overseas.
Expressing milk can be painful and difficult, despite the hype from the “breastapo”—those who argue that every woman should be able to easily provide breast milk for her child and never resort to formula. It can cause clogged milk ducts (causing hard lumps to form in the breast), mastitis (which brings on flu-like symptoms and painful breasts) and thrush (which results in itchy, burning and/or cracked nipples and shooting pains in the breast during feedings). Expressing milk for hours a day can leave women exhausted and lethargic.
The Phnom Penh clinic is in the Stung Meanchey district, close to the area best known as the city’s former landfill.
On my way to the clinic, I stop at the residential area by a huge landfill. My tuk tuk—a mechanized three-wheeled taxi—struggled along a dirt road littered with foul-smelling garbage and the occasional dead animal. Men chopped wood in makeshift workshops, while women and children collected items from the rubble. The women earn a few cents a day gathering trash. None wore gloves or any other protective clothing, despite the fact that glass, pieces of sharp metal, rotting food and other dangerous substances seemed to make up the majority of the waste.
Stung Meanchey is home to the most neglected families, and the place of last resort for homeless families. The people who live in this district are beyond impoverished. Many are burdened with crippling debt and are often ill and/or addicted. The vast majority move to Stung Meanchey from the rural areas, with two-thirds owing substantial amounts of money to unscrupulous loan sharks, having fallen ill and unable to work.
“Community lenders,” as the sharks are known, charge between 10 percent and 20 percent interest monthly on their loans. This means that a $250 loan accumulates interest payments of $1.25 every day, leaving borrowers without much hope of ever paying the original debt. Being debt-bonded means being desperate.
With high birthrates, the concentration of the very poor and many who need to earn quick money, there is no better place for profiteers to offer impoverished women money for breast milk.
I stop near some corrugated iron shacks inhabited by large families, most of whose members are sitting on makeshift stools outside the cramped-looking interiors. I ask passers-by if they have heard of Ambrosia Labs. They shake their heads, until I explain that I am referring to the breast milk clinic, at which point they all nod. Ambrosia Labs is registered as “Mother Gratefulness,” or Kun Meada in Khmer.
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