03/01/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Minnie Driver had soured on Hollywood's run-of-the-mill approach to charity. "I was sick of sitting on the boards of organizations and going to lunches," she says. "I wanted to do something, not just talk about it." So on Jan. 30 she traveled to Thailand and Cambodia as part of the international aid agency Oxfam's "Make Trade Fair" campaign in order to draw attention to how global companies' purchasing practices affect labor conditions in the developing world's factories. Throughout her visit, Driver, 34, shared her experiences with PEOPLE Los Angeles correspondent Champ Clark.
Driver visits the Solidarity Cooperative in Bangkok, run by 30 workers who had protested after losing their jobs when their garment factory suddenly closed.
"I am having my mind blown over here. These women are incredible. They sang us their freedom songs, which they sang all through the three months of demonstrating at the Ministry of Labor. They celebrated the tiny amount of change that they've created in their lives. The day was joyful, one of the greatest days of my life."
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Driver goes to a typical garment worker's living quarters.
"It is the hardest thing I've ever seen. The living conditions are brutal. There are five girls sleeping in a room that is 4 ft. by 4 ft. These women had worked their 10-hour day, they had not eaten a single healthful meal, yet they still smiled and asked if I wanted to stay for dinner."
Driver visits Prey Veng province, where one worker's family lives.
"We traveled with a garment worker named Srey Neang. She's 22 and hadn't been home since last September. It was a slow journey. We had to get a ferry across the Mekong River. There were endless shrines and temples and whole families on one motor scooter. At the village, all the children came running out to meet us. The first thing Srey Neang did was clean off her little brother's face because we had our cameras. She makes about $45 a month and sends 70 to 80 percent home to her family. Still, the family is just barely able to get by. If a large Western company supports Cambodia and creates a factory there that pays minimum wage, where we know the clothes have been ethically traded, that means Srey Neang's standard of living raises a little bit. But it doubles her family's standard of living."
Driver hosts an Oxfam fashion show, with garment workers modeling clothes they made themselves.
"The fashion show was an incredible celebration. The garment workers had been taught how to walk down a catwalk by a fashion model. I can't even tell you how beautiful they are. There was a stunning moment when two girls walked down the catwalk, each carrying enlarged checks. One had the salary of a clothing retail company CEO printed on it, the other had the combined pay of all the garment workers in Cambodia. It was just a fraction of the CEO's pay, and it was startling to see."
Driver ends her trip at the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat.
"Though we are in a very beautiful place, I think all of us are suffering from a kind of decompression. I feel like I'm in The Matrix, and I want to run up to these tourists and go, 'Can I tell you something?' Hopefully, one day we'll all be able to buy clothes that have been fairly traded. And I will be screaming in the streets the day we can do that."