Pressure on Cambodian Garment Trade increases
In principle Cambodia was earmarked to become a model for the world apparel industry with tough factory monitoring and strong worker protections, because around 12 years ago, the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) launched at that time a programme to manage Cambodia’s booming garment trade. It was the first ever of its kind, but then the missing oversight of the project led to the fact that things did not turn out so well
According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal also many Cambodian factories are not matching new standards and an abuse of worker’s rights is still taking place. The opposition part made better working conditions to one of its big issues in the national elections taking place on July 28, 2013. They require a wage rise for workers to USD 150 per month, almost double the current level.
Because of what has happened in Bangladesh ILO is considering launching a factory monitoring program in Bangladesh, incorporating lessons from its somewhat ineffective programme in Cambodia and the difficulty in radically transforming working conditions. Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre, an NGO Non Governmental Organisation, declares: “the core problem is the way the supply chain is structured and which exploi8ts the most vulnerable people, the workers”. He stated further that “the government, factories, brands and even some unions keep labour costs down for their own economic benefit. Workers – often extremely poor and uneducated – have little leverage “.
Also in Cambodia, the garment complexes are heavily guarded. The buildings do not have abundant windows and also poor air circulation. If employees refuse overtime, they are often threatened to be fired. They don’t dare to be organised or be a member of a union, if they disobey the have to affront retaliation from factory owners. The Cambodian law prohibits labour from being asked to put in excessive overtime or work in overheated factories, and it protects their right to unionise, but of course there is a tremendous difference in reality. Now the ILO programme, named Better Factories in Cambodia, is inclined to monitor that such laws are also respected by the factories. The Cambodia’s Secretary of State of the Ministry of Labour, Oum Mean, in turn states “the country doesn’t have problems with garment factories, because it has appropriate legislation in place. However, as in other places, the problem seems to be the effective implementation. Mean affirms:” If the factories do not follow labour laws, we will punish them, and adds that competitive labour costs in Cambodia can attract investors to the country, which can attract foreign investors and that in turn improves the lives of Cambodians”. The ILO programme was a powerful force in educating factories, their business partners and public on labour issues and conditions in many factories could be improved. It helped that at least the minimum wage was applied and it served as a neutral intermediary in Cambodia. The program is funded by international buyers and Cambodia’s government as well as the domestic garment association and foreign governments, including the USA. But it lost somewhat power in 2005 with the expiration of the MFA Multi Fibre Arrangement that had set quotas for apparel imports into western countries and the pressure to factories ceased. Factory owners, afraid from loosing guaranteed access to U.S. markets wanted to stop ILO’s public reports, because that would kill their business in a more competitive global trade environment in the post MFA era. Unfortunately, ILO agreed to this change, and is now delivering confidential reports to the factory owners. The acceptance of the criticised items is however discretionary for the factory owners. The Dutch Clean Clothes Campaign evaluated the conditions, as well as the Stanford Law School and American based Worker Rights Consortium, they all fired at Better Factories initiative. The problems identified by these entities were excessively low wages, shortage of independent unions and abuse of workers’ rights to participate in unions and to claim benefits.
The Cambodian employers are now offering increasingly short term contracts of three, or six month duration, and this permits the employer to get quickly rid of workers if they join unions or seek bonuses or maternity leave benefits. In April 2013, Better Factories Cambodia reported that 90 %of the newly registered factories it assessed all of these workers are on short term contracts. Local Better Factories and ILO are now looking for new strategies, including increased transparency to regain the influence the organisation once had before 2005.