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A Puma shoebox lies on the pavement at the Kaoway Sports factory in Svay Rieng province after a violent protest last year
A Puma shoebox lies on the pavement at the Kaoway Sports factory in Svay Rieng province after a violent protest last year during which at least three people were shot. Derek Stout

Brands set for gov’t sit-down

Global brands Puma and H&M are among a group of international buyers set to meet Cambodian government officials in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, only weeks ahead of planned labour action that could
see thousands of apparel workers stay home.

The scheduled sit-down comes just a month after 30 brands and international unions sent a letter calling on the government to address several labour rights issues in the Kingdom.

A spokeswoman for Puma yesterday confirmed that a representative for the company would be among those meeting with a deputy prime minister on February 19, but declined to answer questions regarding the meeting’s topic. A spokeswoman for Swedish clothing brand H&M also confirmed the company will send a delegate, but declined to go into further detail.

While neither brand representative identified which deputy prime minister they are scheduled to meet, Keat Chhon, one of several to carry that title, is now heading a government committee to investigate minimum wages.

“The issues the brands addressed in their letter January 17 are very, very far from being resolved,” said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center. “Presumably, the meeting will touch on those issues.”

In the letter, which was sent to the office of Prime Minister Hun Sen, signatories appealed to the Cambodian government to address issues surrounding the rights of the 23 men who had been detained since clashes between authorities and demonstrators supporting a garment strike early last month that left at least four dead. Two have since been released on bail, but the Court of Appeal on Tuesday denied bail for the remaining 21 detainees.

Welsh said on Tuesday that he believed the court decision would change the tone of the meeting.

Signatories to the letter also called on the government to introduce a long-awaited trade union law consistent with International Labour Organization (ILO) standards and begin a new minimum wage-setting process for the garment industry. The letter expresses strong support for the United Nations’ request for Cambodia to launch an investigation into crackdowns on January 2 and 3.

Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment.

Neither H&M nor Puma are strangers to high-profile incidents of violence and poor conditions in Cambodian factories that supply their brands.

Chhouk Bandith, the deposed governor of Bavet town in Svay Rieng province, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison in June after being convicted of shooting three women during a February 2012 protest at the Kaoway Sports factory, a Puma supplier. Bandith has since eluded arrest and detention.

In November of 2012, the Community Legal Education Center reported that several workers had fainted at the M&V garment factory – which supplies to H&M – in Kampong Chhnang province every day for five years. This past November, a bystander was killed when police fired on a crowd of hundreds of rioting demonstrators supporting a strike at H&M supplier SL Garment Processing in Phnom Penh.

H&M is also funding a three-year program led by the ILO on industrial relations, which kicked off with a meeting yesterday, ILO national coordinator Tun Sophorn said. Attendees at the meeting included representatives from ILO, H&M and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.

The ILO also began meeting with the Labour Ministry about minimum wage reform and passing a trade union law in the Kingdom, Sophorn said. ILO staff met with ministry officials yesterday and Wednesday, after the Labour Ministry reached out to the ILO to act as technical advisers on both issues.

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