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Union group fears for future of EU trade deal

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Workers stitch clothes at a garment factory in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone. Sahiba Chawdhary

Union group fears for future of EU trade deal

The Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) on Wednesday issued a statement expressing its concern that the upcoming election will impact garment workers, and that if the political climate isn’t improved they could face dire consequences in the form of sanctions or boycotts.

CCU noted international concern has been growing beyond the Kingdom’s borders since the detention of the CNRP’s ex-President Kem Sokha last year, and the party’s dissolution. It was also noted by the confederation that much of the outcry has come from nations that import heavily from the country’s garment and textile industry.

Earlier this year, representatives from VF – the parent firm of brands such as The North Face, Jansport and Timberland – visited Cambodia and delivered a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen as well as to the Ministry of Labour, expressing their concern for “recent actions that seem to undermine progress toward improving worker rights”.

The petition said VF expects its suppliers to treat workers fairly and operate in a safe and free environment. “Actions by any government or entity that jeopardise our sourcing partners’ ability to meet our standards are unacceptable.”

VF sources from over 20 factories in Cambodia and spends between $350 and $400 million here every year, according to the Labour Ministry. A report from the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts showed that factories in the country generated $10.79 billion last year, $7 billion of which came from export-focused garment manufacturers.

Responding to questions about the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme, which Cambodia benefits from, George Edgar, the EU’s ambassador to the Kingdom, said, “respect for fundamental human and labour rights is fundamental to the conduct of the EU’s trade policy and underpins the legal basis of our trade preferences, including preferences granted under the EBA trade scheme”.

Barbara Lochbihler, a member of the European Parliament, said earlier this month, “there will be a fact-finding mission about the [Cambodian] trade preferences in June, but those details have not been announced yet’’.

According to a World Bank report from 2016, 45 percent of Cambodia’s garment exports end up in the EU, while 25 percent go to the United States.

Rong Chhun president of the CCU, said, “we are concerned that after the vote, workers will lose their jobs. Many countries had meetings with the government and raised their concern about the political climate in Cambodia. Those countries – the US, the EU and Japan – said they want to see free and fair elections in Cambodia.”

Responding to the concerns of the CCU, Soum Aun, president of National Alliance Chamber of Cambodia, said:“When the election process is free and fair, foreign countries shouldn’t be upset,” he said, adding that “the EBA is not linked to who’s in prison, it’s about the working conditions of workers”.

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