Human rights groups are warning that Cambodia’s new Prison Law will create financial incentives for violations of human rights within the Kingdom’s prisons and tarnish the image of the country’s most lucrative export industry: footwear and garments.
They point to Article 71 of the new law, which has cleared the Senate and is awaiting Royal endorsement. The article allows prison directors to enter into contracts with private firms to create vocational training programs that will allow the sale of products within the domestic market.
Phil Roberston, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, warned over the weekend that the “government will be opening a Pandora’s Box of human rights abuses for profit in its already badly troubled prisons”. “The Cambodian government should recognise the huge reputational risk that the label ‘Made in Cambodia’ may start being regarded as ‘Made behind bars in Cambodia’,” he said.
He pointed to recent media reports of footwear being made in a prison in Preah Sihanouk and called on the company alleged to be exporting the shoes, Taiwanese-owned New Star Shoes, to be expelled from the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.
“GMAC has a clear responsibility to severely sanction any of its member companies found using prison labour and should start by expelling New Star Shoes and making sure that company’s days of exporting from Cambodia are over, which will in turn ensure that other GMAC members understand the dire consequences of placing orders in prisons,” Robertson said.
Executives in the garment industry, however, are dismissing claims that the new Prison Law will open the way for them to outsource to prisons as naive, arguing that they would not risk the loss of their licenses. Moreover, it would not be possible to open a viable production unit within a prison without it being detected, they say, though they admitted to cases of products from vocational training programs in prison slipping into their supply chains in the past.
Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that besides risking the loss of licenses and access to markets that ban the import of products made by prison labourers, to be viable, prison labour would have to be used at a “reasonable scale”. “A factory with 5,000 workers would not benefit from a few dozen women sitting around stitching buttons on shirts,” he said.
To export from Cambodia, a garment factory must receive a license from the Ministry of Commerce and be monitored by the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories program. Its monitors visit factories to evaluate their compliance with Cambodian law and international labour standards. Some of the factories’ key markets, including the United States and Canada, ban the import of products made with prison labour. ILO conventions, of which Cambodia is a signatory, also prohibit forced labour and place strict conditions of the use of prison labour by private companies.
The ILO, however, has cautioned against what it called “knee-jerk reactions” to the new Prison Law, telling the Post that it was in discussions with several ministries about a prison vocational training program as part of a wider prison reform process.
“The government and the Ministry of Interior are in the process of developing a structured scheme of prison industries and farming as part of a wider reform process. The ILO has discussed this with several ministries,” ILO communications and advocacy officer Maeve Galvin said. “Items produced will range from garments to carpentry to agriculture. Providing prisoners with skills in these areas could potentially provide for them to find work in Cambodia’s key industries. Any products in these schemes are to be for rehabilitation and vocational training purposes only,” she said.
Sandra D’Amico, vice-president of the Cambodian Federation of Employers and Business Associations, which includes some garment exporting companies, said that because exporting factories were closely monitored by the ILO, vocational training programs in prisons would not be a “serious concern”. “If they were set up for export, they would need to monitored very closely,” she added.
Still, a letter sent in July by the commerce ministry to GMAC noted that an investigation by an inter-ministerial group found that unregistered sub-contractors to members of the association had used prison labour to produce garments. This “could affect the reputation of Cambodia and even result in a disaster in the garment industry as a whole”, the letter said. It also pointed to a 2005 directive from the government that laid out penalties for exporting companies found to use forced or “impure” labour, stipulating that they faced suspension or the loss of their export licenses.
Another letter from the ministry sent in November last year in response to a letter from a group of international buyers, admitted that apparel had been produced in rehabilitation programs at three prisons and sold to an unregistered sub-contractor. The scale, according to the ministry, was marginal and the prison programs were swiftly shut down following an investigation by the Anti-Economic Crime Police.
A separate investigation into garment work in Cambodian prisons alleged that it had occurred in seven prisons, with five of them having shut down or suspended their operations. Claims made by the investigator – who did not share the results of the investigation with the government¸ GMAC or the Anti-Economic Crime Police – could not be verified by the Post. Post reporters who have visited two of the prisons mentioned in the report said that vocational training courses at the prisons were shut down last year following allegations that they had been used to produce clothing for GMAC sub-contractors.
The investigator, who requested anonymity, also provided the Post with photos he said linked prison labour to a global brand, and asked Post reporters to confront the brands with the evidence. The investigator admitted that the photographs would not be credible evidence in court, explaining that he had approached reporters because they had “lower standards”.
Koy Boun Sorn, director general of department of prisons at the Ministry of Interior, said there had been some use of prison labour to make garments through vocational training programs in 2010, but that this had been ended.
David Welsh, country director of the American Centre for International Labour Solidarity, said the prison system faces two options: non-profit training programs or for-profit programs that require prisoners be given the full rights accorded to employees.
To proceed with the latter, there must be “an iron-clad monitoring and remuneration system in place”, he said. Welsh also said that prison labour was a new issue for Cambodia, and that Commerce Minister Cham Prasidih had frankly admitted there had been abuses in the past.
Critics of the new Prison Law point to the government’s chronic failure to enforce its own laws and regulations as well as a culture of coercion and corruption within prisons as reasons for steering clear of introducing a profit incentive to prison work.
They also point to the government’s lack of capacity to monitor existing factories. Reports from rights investigators in Preah Sihanouk say that the director of the provincial prison, Pich Veasna, had formed a partnership with Taiwanese-owned New Star Shoes Ltd to manufacture shoes within the prison. Pich Veasna, however, has denied even speaking to the news outlets that quoted him praising the illegal program.
Welsh said that if allegations that New Star was exporting shoes made in prison were true its export license should be suspended. “It doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said, referring to the allegations.
A receptionist at New Star told the Post yesterday that she had been instructed to hang up the phone when reporters called.
Welsh also warned that consumers overseas would not make a distinction between clothing produced by GMAC members and clothing that might be produced in prisons for the domestic market.
Cambodia’s reputation is at stake, he said.