SHOULD Cambodia try to develop the garment industry as the backbone of its economy,
or does the industry milk the country's resources without spreading the economic
Garment executives argue that garments mean jobs.
They point out that the industry employs nearly 70,000 people directly and indirectly
through spin-off industries; and this figure is likely to grow over the next few
Garment exports comprised 30 per cent of the country's total exports in 1995 ($26.4m,
compared to only $3.8m, or two per cent of exports in 1994), and officials expect
that figure to grow to 50 per cent in five years.
For the first six months of 1996, exports totaled $32.7 million, and the next six
months may bring in another $34 million, or 40 per cent of total exports, according
to Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh.
Thirty-two garment factories are currently in operation, up from 20 in 1995, while
another 28 more have received licenses but have not yet committed their investments.
According to industry executives, the primary reason garment companies invest in
Cambodia is the promise of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status with the United States.
MFN will grant normal trading status with the US, meaning the end of prohibitive
garment duties that range from 55 to 100 per cent.
Van Sou Ieng, Chairman of Cambodia's Garment Manufacturers Association claims that
when MFN is granted, garment companies will invest an additional $50-70 million in
the country, up from roughly $32 million currently.
MFN not only promises lower tariffs on exports to the United States, but, more importantly,
membership in the Multi-Fiber Arrangement, which specifies the per-country amount
of garment exports to the US. With MFN, Cambodia will be eligible to negotiate its
status in the Multi-Fiber Arrangement.
This explains why companies from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Thailand are setting
up garment companies in Cambodia. Most of these countries have reached their quota
restrictions, and exporting garments to the United States under Cambodia's quota
offers them a way to increase their exports even further.
Potential revenues are high. In 1995, for example, China exported $4.8 billion of
garments and textiles to the US; Taiwan $2.8 billion; Thailand $1.6 billion; and
Bangladesh $1.1 billion.
While disagreeing on the level of profits, garment executives agree that they are
healthy. "Cambodia is not a gold mine," said Roger Tan, Managing Director
of Thai-Pore Garment Manufacturing Co. The industry-wide profits are 10-12 per cent
a year, according to Sou Ieng.
Sok Hong, Chairman of Kong Hong Garment Co., however, said that profits at his factory
are "guaranteed at 20-25 per cent." Profits have the potential to reach
50 per cent after a couple of years, if business is "done well" - that
is, if buyers are in place and Cambodia has MFN. "If business is not done well,"
he said, "we could be killed."
Nevertheless, garment executives argue that the industry should be given preferential
treatment to offset the challenges of conducting business in Cambodia.
For example, exorbitant shipping costs shave 20 per cent off their gross profits,
according to Sou Ieng. "Administrative costs" are 25-30% of total costs
in Cambodia, compared to 7-12% for other Asian countries. Pre-shipment inspections
are also a "tremendous burden," according to Sou Ieng, because they result
in lengthy delays. Some factories may even close due to these delays.
In addition, the profits of some garment companies have fallen off in recent months
due to Rule of Origin problems with the European Union. The EU allows Cambodia to
import a certain amount of garments duty free, provided that their raw materials
originate in that country. Since Cambodia's industry currently imports all of its
materials, it is in violation of the Rule of Origin.
Until the EU agrees that Cambodia deserves to be an exception - called a "derogation"
- importers will have to pay higher duties. Cham Prasidh was optimistic that the
derogation will be soon granted.
Of all the managers' complaints about conducting business in Cambodia, their criticism
of poor labor productivity was the most strident, though they did state that labor
costs were among the lowest in the region. Workers are paid piece-rate, that is by
the number of pieces they produce, and work according to a quota.
"The quota [of a Cambodian worker] is 50 per cent less of the quota of a garment
worker in China, yet they still only meet 10-20 per cent of this quota," said
Chinese workers make $120 a month and Vietnamese workers $55-60 a month, while Cambodian
workers make lower salaries because they are less productive, he said.
He argued that by working eight hours plus one hour overtime a day, five and a half
days a week, the Cambodian worker averages $50-55 in monthly wages; he said that
some even earn more than $100 a month.
These figures contradict a recent NGO study of garment factory wages. According to
this study, workers must work a minimum of ten hours a day, seven days a week to
earn an average of $30-35 a month.
Furthermore, this study found that the piece-rate is declining, meaning that workers
must work longer hours to earn the same wage each month. If the latter figure is
true, labor costs would indeed be among the lowest in the region, comparable to $30-35
a month in India and Bangladesh.
"[Cambodian workers] want money without working," said Sou Ieng. "It
wouldn't matter if we paid them 5-10 per cent more, they still wouldn't work hard.
We are not squeezing the workers. We only want to deliver quality goods according
to a time schedule set by the buyer."
Sizable investment incentives go a long way to offset labor's low productivity. Cambodia
offers some of the most liberal investment incentives in Southeast Asia: an eight-year
tax holiday, five-year loss-carried forward, and the tax-free import of raw materials
While noting that the investment incentives for the garment industry are the same
as for other industries, Cham Prasidh said: "The garment industry is very mobile.
Without tax incentives they may not come." However, he suggested that taxes
may increase by 2006. "This may affect the garment industry, but they will recoup,"
The footloose nature of the industry, which invests an average of only $1 million
per factory in equipment and materials that are easily removed as costs rise, makes
the tax issue a particularly sensitive one.
A May 1996 World Bank report faults Cambodia's investment incentives for weakening
the country's tax base. Although it doesn't specify the garment industry, the report
recommends that tax holidays be lowered to "three years or less." The World
Bank explains: "The tax incentives offered by the Investment Law are too generous
by international standards and would result in a substantial potential loss of tax
revenues... [The] experience of other countries shows that tax incentives rank low
on the list of determinants of investment flows. Moreover, tax policy affecting multinational
corporations in the majority of countries allows for some credit for taxes paid abroad,
so that tax holidays in Cambodia might only serve to shift tax revenue to foreign
However, garment executives believe that reducing the investment incentives would
hurt the industry and the economy. "Companies will spend their time trying to
avoid paying taxes," said one executive. "They won't be productive. [Cambodia]
should tax consumption products, not for-export goods."
Sou Ieng offered a slightly different reason. "If factories don't come [because
of less liberal incentives], Cambodia won't increase their taxes. The government
should tax the activities of spin-off industries."
While the garment industry is a matter of sewing sleeves, buttoning, ironing, and
folding, once the initial investment is made, there is little incentive to reinvest
For long-term growth, Cambodia must develop the capital-intensive textile industry,
which manufacturers the materials used by the garment industry.
"We want to tie [the garment industry] down," explained Prasidh, "perhaps
by linking them to the textile industry and cotton-growing industry." A weaving
mill, for example, costs $10 million, compared to a minimum investment of $500,000
for a garment factory, and cannot be easily shifted to a second country.