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‘Brand aid’ failing workers

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A woman works at a garment factory bearing no identifying sign or name in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, in September of last year.

A strike this morning at a garment factory located near the bend of a dirt road in Bonal Sa-ith village in Sen Sok district underscores the need for enhanced enforcement of labour legislation, the president of the Free Trade Union said yesterday.

Chea Mony also said the strike over late payment of wages raised questions about the effectiveness of the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia program, which monitors all garment factories that have licences to export from Cambodia to ensure they comply with labour laws and international standards.

The program has been held up as a model for improving working conditions in the garment industry, but some union leaders here have dismissed it as a form of “brand aid” that is “out of touch with reality”.

They say ILO monitors are ineffective and point to the hundreds of garment factories outside its program, alleging that these factories are being subcontracted by those within the ILO’s program to illegally produce garments for export.

Yesterday’s strike at Chea Ieng garment factory – a Chinese-managed company that does not have a licence to export from Cambodia – saw about 300 workers refuse to work because they had not been paid for October, workers said. Factory worker Sun Sopheak said they protested because they wanted to be paid before the Water Festival, which begins today.

A Chinese-speaking company manager, who declined to give his name, said the workers would be paid today, and added that there had been a misunderstanding over the date on which salaries would be paid.

He declined to allow Post staff into the gated compound and refused to name the company, which had no sign on its gate or the concrete walls surrounding it. He said that all workers were paid the legally required wage of US$61 a month for 48 hours of work per week. “We don’t have unions at this company, and we don’t know the name of the union that is causing problems,” he said.

Man Seng Hak, deputy secretary general of Free Trade Union said that the company had not paid its staff because it was “late transferring money from Taiwan”. The workers had contacted the FTU and it said it would join them in a strike if they were not paid today.

Chea Mony said the FTU was forming a union inside the factory. This move comes amid intense negotiations over the draft union law, which some within the labor movement have dismissed as restrictive and others have praised as progressive.

The draft law, which is undergoing its fifth rewrite, is also being closely reviewed by US trade representatives. Barbara Shailor, the US State Department’s special representative for international labor affairs, met with union and government leaders here last month.

Chea Mony described her visit as a fact-finding mission to gather information on garment factories. She also discussed the draft law on unions with union leaders here at a meeting on October 14, he said.

She also met with commerce and labour ministry officials to discuss the law, said David Welsh, country director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity. “Some people at the highest levels of government recognise the importance of not drafting regressive trade laws if they want access to the US market,” he said.

Chea Mony agreed the government is acutely concerned about the garment sector’s access to the US market, and said officials at the US embassy here are in regular contact with union leaders to assess conditions at garment factories.

Cambodia’s labour movement is, however, fractious. There are more than 2,000 unions in Cambodia, 62 federations of unions and seven confederations of federations, Chea Mony said, adding that they primarily represent workers in the garment sector.

He also said the government had a history of undermining unions and harassing union leaders. “No factory manager or owner has ever been jailed for violating labour laws, but union leaders have been jailed on trumped up charges,” he said.

Some garment factories had shut down and shifted their machinery to new locations without paying staff, he said. A truck carrying sewing machines departed Chea Ieng factory in the mid afternoon yesterday. Additional reporting by Don Weinland

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