Systemic labour violations, union busting and corruption are the norm in Cambodia’s garment sector, according to a report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch.
Titled Work Faster or Get Out, the 140-page report details the substandard working conditions faced by employees of exporting garment factories and their sub-contractors.
Through interviews with 340 people – including factory representatives and 270 garment workers at 73 factories – HRW concluded that the government, clothing brands and third-party monitors have failed to stem a variety of entrenched violations to Cambodian and international labour standards.
Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour and Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia deputy secretary-general Kaing Monika did not respond to calls or text messages requesting comment yesterday.
Visibly pregnant women in particular frequently find themselves in danger of losing their jobs, said multiple workers surveyed in the study.
“They would call workers in and would get upset when they found out someone was pregnant, and then they would fire those who were pregnant,” one worker, who said she aborted her own baby to avoid that fate, said in a video showed at an HRW press conference yesterday.
Her concerns are not unfounded, the study shows. Workers interviewed at 30 different factories said they had either personally experienced or witnessed first-hand pregnancy-based discrimination. Cambodia’s constitution forbids the firing of women due to pregnancy, but says nothing about discrimination toward expectant mothers.
One worker reported that a pregnant friend who was in a probationary period obtained a new worker identification card issued to women medically required to sit more often. She was dismissed within a week.
But discrimination along gender lines can affect men as well, according to the study.
In a number of the factories examined, men – widely believed more likely to take part in union-organising activities – were continuously put on two-month contracts and warned that independent union activity is forbidden.
While a Labour Ministry official told HRW yesterday that its inspectors are looking into the various issues addressed in the study, the report itself specifically details a longstanding “envelope system”, in which factories pay such inspectors for positive reports.
“This system undermines a whole raft of efforts to improve labour conditions,” HRW’s deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson said.
Further, since the worst of these factories are subcontractors for larger companies, and lack export licenses, they fall outside the purview of Better Factories Cambodia, which focuses on export factories. But even at factories where third-party inspectors are the norm, violations are hidden, including during surprise inspections.
One worker, who spoke to HRW under the pseudonym Leng Chhaya, said her factory signalled floor managers to instruct workers to quickly shape up the factory’s appearance when BFC arrived.
“As soon as the security guard finds out there are visitors and tells the factory managers, the long light near the roof will come on,” Chhaya said. “And the group leaders will start telling all the workers to clean our desks; we have to wear our masks, put on our ID cards, and cannot talk to visitors.”
Attempts to reach Janika Simon, interim technical adviser for BFC, were unsuccessful yesterday.
For most workers across the board, the report shows that short-term employment contracts play an outsized role in facilitating violations. Frightened that their contracts will not be renewed every few months, workers have little choice but to live up to illegally stringent demands.
Workers reported being harassed by managers for taking bathroom breaks during their shifts, which, they were told, interfered with productivity.
“The fear of non-renewal forces workers to work [substantial amounts] of overtime,” said report author Aruna Kashyap, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of HRW.
Following a planned meeting with the government after the report’s release yesterday, HRW’s Robertson walked away believing the Ministry of Labour put little stock in the information it was presented, he said.
Expecting to meet with Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng to discuss the group’s recommendations for reform, Robertson was met by a seemingly uninformed functionary, he said.
“The minister did not appear. We actually got an undersecretary …[who] was not well-briefed, not well-informed and didn’t really say anything substantive,” Robertson said after the meeting yesterday afternoon. “It was lackadaisical.… It was not the level of concern we would hope or expect to see when a major report like this comes out.”