South Korean garment giant Yakjin Trading Corp has engaged a top international labour rights expert to conduct a review of its factories in Cambodia, one of which was a flashpoint during labour strikes earlier this year that saw dozens arrested and at least five people shot dead by authorities.
Both Cambodian and international unions have lobbied the Carlyle Group – a global asset manager that took a 70 per cent stake in Yakjin through a holdings company just weeks before authorities violently suppressed protests outside Yakjin’s Phnom Penh factory on January 2 – to take action.
The crackdown sparked bigger protests in Phnom Penh the next day, leading to the fatal shootings.
The United States’ largest pension fund, a major investor in Carlyle, has also taken a leading role, according to labour activists in the US.
As a result, Yakjin dispatched Gare Smith, a lawyer who served as the top human rights official at the US State Department during the Clinton administration and a former vice president at Levi Strauss & Co, to Phnom Penh for a week in mid-August.
“Yakjin is proud of its labor rights record and, as part of its commitment to its workers, best practices, and continuous improvement, invited labor rights experts to conduct an assessment,” a spokeswoman from Yakjin’s corporate responsibility section said via email. “Though the review is still in progress, the preliminary assessment of Yakjin’s labor practices indicates significant areas of strength as well as some areas for improvement. Upon delivery of the final report, Yakjin will review it and take appropriate action to ensure it continues to meet international labor standards.”
Yakjin’s clients include Gap and Wal-Mart.
Carlyle spokespeople declined to comment.
Dave Welsh, country director of labour rights group Solidarity Center, said the January 2 incident at the factory – which saw 10 people, including activists, secretly detained and eventually put on trial – was only one of several issues at Yakjin, which employs close to 3,000 workers.
These include ongoing problems related to freedom of association and union rights at the factory, he said. It was also important that investors such as Carlyle, like brands, pay attention to macro-issues in the sector, namely ongoing minimum wage talks and the upcoming trade union law, he added, praising the review as a “positive step”.
“Nobody wants Carlyle or any other international investor pulling out of Cambodia. They want them to use the significant influence they have to change conditions on the ground.”
The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union – which initially reached out to Carlyle, according to Welsh – could not be reached.
Forbes magazine reported last week that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System had been raising questions about the military crackdown at Yakjin with Carlyle, in which it is a key investor, leading to the review.
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union, said that this type of activism from pension funds was increasing, with unions regularly lobbying such investors to take a stand on labour rights.