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Business in black books

Businesses in Cambodia are violating land rights with “alarming regularity” and need to do more to ensure compliance with labour laws, according to a Cambodian Centre for Human Rights report released yesterday.

But the centre also found there were “tantalising prospects for improvement”, with a growing number of companies publicly committing themselves to upholding rights.

The Business and Human Rights in Cambodia report looked at the role of government, firms and dispute-resolution bodies in ensuring companies complied with rights regulations.

It found a number of Cambodian businesses had shown “a blatant lack of respect for human rights”, and the government had “repeatedly failed” to protect its citizens from abuses.

The report cited recent high-profile forced evictions, saying businesses had violated land rights with “alarming regularity”.

“These evictions are frequently carried out in breach of international standards and seemingly with little reference to the domestic legal regime,” the report said.

It found while there had been significant progress in labour-law compliance over the last decade – particularly in the garment sector – a number of issues still needed to be addressed.

Gender discrimination, forced overtime, poor workplace safety, child labour and the use of short-term contracts to bypass labour regulations were among areas where more improvement was needed across sectors. But the report also found a growing number of businesses were committed to respecting human rights in “a targeted and systemic way”.

While their numbers were still small, their efforts boded well for the future.

“If a critical mass of businesses do commit to take concrete steps to respect rights, Cambodian businesses’ human rights record should improve,” the report said.

John Brinsden, vice-chairman of both the International Chamber of Commerce and ACLEDA Bank, said compliance with human rights regulations varied from sector to sector.

“Anything that involves clearing land, whether it's for building or for development for agricultural purposes, that's always very contentious.”

But he said businesses were increasingly taking their human rights obligations seriously.

“I think there is a groundswell moving in that direction, certainly amongst some of the foreign-invested companies here. It's not just question of feel-good – actually it's a sound business argument, because that's the way the world is going,” he said.

Responsible businesses could see quite noticeable benefits in staff morale, pride and productivity, he added.

Kith Meng, president of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said while businesses could have a negative impact on rights, the government was committed to protecting its citizens.

“We have built a lot of mechanisms and [have] issued regulations and laws to protect the people,” he said.

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