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An Example of Capitalism Literally Milking the Poor
Posted on Apr 19, 2017
By Julie Bindel
One woman told me that a broker had approached her when she was heavily pregnant and asked if she would like to make a profit from her “excess milk.” With the help of a translator, I asked the woman how she felt about being asked to sell her breast milk. “This is my first child, and I had no idea that we have extra milk that we don’t need [something the women are told by the brokers]. Of course I wanted to do this, because I haven’t got any other way of making money, and it will mean that I will be able to eat and stay healthy while I feed my baby.”
On my arrival at the clinic, I am met by a young Cambodian woman who introduces herself as the manager. I had telephoned the clinic earlier, asking for a tour and an interview with the owners, explaining that I was writing an article on the increasing popularity of commercial breast milk. The woman, who is carrying her own baby, shows me upstairs to the “pumping room.” The room is airless, and a long line of women sit with babies on their laps, or toddlers crawling around their feet, while tubes attached to their nipples draw the milk into plastic jugs. When the jugs are full, they are collected by a woman in a white apron and transferred into plastic bags. The bags are sealed, labeled and placed in one of the large freezers in the kitchen area on the ground floor.
Ambrosia Labs was founded in 2015 by three Americans from Utah: Bronzson Woods, his father, Lamond Woods, and Bronzson’s friend, Ryan Newell. “Bronzson was here as a missionary and fell for the place,” Lamond says.
Lamond, who describes himself in an email as “head cheerleader” of Ambrosia Labs, is an affable, energetic man. I introduced myself as a reporter from the U.K. with an interest in “women’s issues,” and he immediately began to tell me how the breast milk business is a “saving grace,” not just for Cambodian women, but for any woman who is unable or unwilling to breast-feed her own baby.
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The women expressing milk tell me that they were recruited by staff at the clinic to “donate” their milk for 50 cents an ounce. I notice that the clinic’s website advertises the rates at 50 cents to $1 per ounce, but according to the women, they have never received more than the minimum rate.
The women arrive at the clinic before 8 a.m. and express milk for three hours. After a two-hour break, they resume for another three hours. They work six days a week, with Sundays off.
Their alternatives to selling breast milk is collecting and recycling garbage, or the garment factory. Neither job would earn them as much as the $10 to $13 a day they can make from selling milk. The women tell me they are primarily doing this job for the money, but also because it might help other women who are unable to breast-feed. “I think of the children my milk is helping and wonder if they will grow up big and strong,” one woman says. No one has told the women that breast milk fetishists and bodybuilders may be consuming their precious body fluids.
There are obvious similarities between the breast milk and surrogacy trades. The surrogacy trade is rife in Cambodia, and feminists and other human rights campaigners have been pressuring the government to clamp down on the baby market.
My fixer, a local journalist named Kalliyan, tells me about the surrogacy trade in the poor areas of Phnom Penh, and I realize the recruitment process and targeting of desperate, impoverished women is the same as that for breast milk.
“They have a broker who lives in the community who approaches families that are really poor and where there is a pregnant woman,” Kalliyan says. “They go to the house to convince the family. They get a lot of money from that, about $7,000 to $10,000. A poor woman could not have this amount of money.”
I ask Ryan Newall, one of the founders of Ambrosia Labs, if they are looking to tap into the surrogacy market in the search for excess breast milk. After all, when the surrogate gives up the child she has been carrying, she will be lactating. “Yes, we want to do that,” he says. “The surrogacy market is booming here, although the government looks like it is clamping down on that market too, which is probably a good thing,” he adds.
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