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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Garment industry battles image problem

Garment industry battles image problem

Workers peer through a locked factory gate in Sihanoukville. The sign reads: "Private property. All rights reserved."

Cambodia's garment sector is the Kingdom's largest export-earner and industry, but

needs to overcome a myriad of labor issues or risk elimination. - That's the sobering

picture unions, observers and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC)

face after the arrival of independent International Labor Organization (ILO) monitors

on March 30.

The garment industry is suffering from "a really bad image", says the ILO

project's Chief Technical Adviser, Lejo Sibbel.

"Whether that image is based on fact or not nobody really knows because there's

never been any analysis of the whole sector."

Investigating the industry's image problem will be the task of the long awaited ILO

project team.

Despite the signing in January 1999 of an historic three-year trade agreement between

the United States and Cambodia, independent labor monitors are only just now being

put into place.

Their task will be to investigate some of the abuses reported by unions operating

in the garment industry. Those complaints range from forced and unpaid overtime to

anti-union discrimination, under-age workers and unsafe working conditions.

While the right to freedom of association is enshrined in the Cambodian labor code,

summary dismissal of union leaders remains a regular feature of Cambodia's working

environment, unionists say.

Unionists who press their cases in Cambodian courts frequently find the law incorrectly

applied or due process ignored, says Seng Phally of the Cambodian Labor Organization.

"The courts have no capacity, no accountability, no tran-sparency and do not

provide good governance," he said.

However, GMAC President Van Sou Ieng, says that reports of the hard lot of Cambodian

workers and unionists are exaggerated.

"So far [in the past year there have been] around seven[court] cases out of

170 factories. I don't think that's a lot," he said. "170,000 [garment]

workers go to work every day and the majority are happy."

But Legal Aid Cambodia disputes the GMAC figures, saying they alone have received

10 cases involving the dismissal of 38 unionists since the end of last year.

LAC's statistics are further supported by the Labor Trends Report published by the

US Embassy in August 2000, which described conditions in garment factories as dominated

by "...a climate of impunity for factory managers who violate... freedom of

association provisions."

Meanwhile, unions, trade officials, image-sensitive corporations and the US government

are all looking to Cambodia as a possible model for future trade agreements linking

trade to working conditions.

The rapid growth of the industry is a result of preferential treatment handed out

by the US government first with the granting of Normal Trade Relations in 1996 followed

by the 1999 textile agreement.

The unique agreement, under which Cambodia is eligible for annual bonuses in its

export quota tied to improvements in labor conditions, came about after lobbying

by the US labor movement concerned at competition from low wage workers operating

in unsafe conditions. In the first two years only modest bonuses have been awarded.

A US Embassy spokesman described the quota increases as "encouragement"

rather than recognition of "substantial compliance" with the labor code.

The Embassy source said that "In the absence of the ILO monitors it was important

to recognize the Government's progress on labor law and on establishing the tri-partite

Labor Advisory Committee."

Unions have welcomed the ILO project but are skeptical about its potential to

bring about change as long as the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training

and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) is responsible for enforcement of labor standards.

Glue fumes are a daily problem for "New Star" shoe workers. applies toxic glue.

Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia

(FTUWKC) criticized the program. "I don't see that it has the power [to effect

change] , because the scheme is voluntary so the good factory owner will join the

scheme but the bad factory owner will not," he said.

While all players acknowledge that Cambodia has some of the best labor legislation

in the region, they also concede that that legislation is rarely, if ever, enforced

and factory owners operate in a climate of impunity.

While legislation allows for heavy fines, complaints are usually settled through

"mediation" in which employers short-circuit the process with a small,

well-directed bribe, says Phally.

But Van Sou Ieng argues that such pay-offs are just part of the negotiation process.

"When the unionist says 'I know I'm wrong, I accept to go away but I need some

compensation', then why not [pay them off]?"

Phally disagrees.

"Trade unions don't have any independence because the management tries to buy

the union leaders," he argues. "The labor code says that management can't

interfere, but if they do interfere [to buy off factory union leaders] then no-one

will enforce it, so management just violates the labor code."

While MOSALVY is entitled to rescind a factory's export quota, it has yet to do so

in a single case.

Sibbel acknowledges that the ILO project alone won't transform the industry, emphasizing

that the ILO is just one source of information that the US will use to make a decision

on the quota.

"The project will put some pressure on them... but if they don't want to change

then our project can't make them," said Sibbel of the garment manufacturers.

"GMAC sees the relevance of the project, they realize that they may get knocked

about a bit because of the information that we will release but I think they realize

that they need an instrument to clarify what the situation really is."

Despite some reluctance on the part of individual GMAC members, the organization

has matched the Cambodian government's $200,000 contribution to the project.

According to Van Sou Ieng, GMAC has embraced the project because it recognizes that

high costs are already sending the industry into decline. That decline is reflected

in the closure of 45 factory garment factories in the past year, he says.

"What we are looking at is the survival of the industry in Cambodia. Cambodia

is not a cheap producer and by 2005 [under WTO rules phasing garment quotas]... the

only way to survive will be to sell the idea to American consumers that we are socially

responsible," Sou Ieng said.

"That is our trump card against [cheap producers] China, India and Bangladesh."




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