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Workers' ally urges US to cut garment tariffs

Workers' ally urges US to cut garment tariffs

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A garment worker operates a sewing machine at Modern Dress Sewing Factory last week in Phnom Penh.

Labour advocate backs industry in calling for end to US duties on Cambodian garment exports ahead of Washington hearing

ALABOUR activist called on the US Congress on Thursday to provide Cambodian textile and footwear makers duty-free access to its markets on condition they met certain minimum labour laws and standards.

Moeun Tola, head of the Labour Programme Unit at the Community Legal Education Centre in Cambodia, says the concession should be granted along the lines of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's Trade Act of 2009, according to a copy of his testimony seen by the Post in advance of his appearance before a human rights commission hearing in Washington later Thursday.

He calls for specific benchmarks to be set in line with international and national labour standards and for the US government to put pressure on Cambodia to "fully implement" its labour laws and pass its long-awaited anti-corruption law.

The Trade Act of 2009 bill extending duty free access to 14 least developed countries (LDCs) - one of which is Cambodia - is currently stuck in the US Senate finance committee. It is the third such bill to go before the Senate, following the Trade Act of 2005 and the Trade Act of 2007, both of which failed.

Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), said Thursday that he did not expect Moeun Tola to paint a recognisable picture of conditions in Cambodia's garment sector, but he added that any help in securing duty-free status was welcomed.

"On one hand, we are glad as manufacturers that we are not the only ones to see the need for such access, and that we are not fighting alone to reach this goal," he said.

Loo said GMAC had been lobbying the US government since 2004 to secure duty-free access, initially just for Cambodia but recently as part of a group with the 14 LDCs nominated in Feinstein's bill.

The bill was very similar to the previous two bills to go before the Senate, which were introduced following visits by sector delegates led by Commerce Minister Chan Prasidh, Loo said. GMAC has been involved in "five or six" delegations to the US lobbying for duty-free access for the sector since 2004, he said.

Loo added that GMAC was not concerned over access being associated with minimum labour conditions as the association was a supporter of the International Labour Organisation's Better Factories initiative, which was introduced in 2001 to boost labour conditions in exchange for better access to export markets.

"If the US grants Cambodia duty-free access based on continued compliance, be it in the current form or in a modified form, then of course our members will go along with it."

If the bill were passed, which many experts say is unlikely, it would provide a boost to Cambodia's beleaguered garment industry. Garment and textile exports to the US dropped 30 percent year-on-year in the first half of 2009 to US$725.7 million, Ministry of Commerce figures show, dwarfing an 18 percent decline to $1.27 billion in exports to all countries.

When Feinstein introduced the bill on May 21, she said that some of the world's poorest countries faced some of the highest US tariffs when it came to garment exports.

Cambodia pays the highest tariffs, in percentage terms, of any US trading partner because of its dependence on garment exports. The Progressive Policy Institute, a US think tank, says Cambodia paid US$419 million in tariffs on exports worth $2.46 billion in 2007.

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