Some of the biggest buyers in the Kingdom’s garment sector have urged Prime Minister Hun Sen to address issues faced by unions and workers – a request a senior official said was out of touch with the situation on the ground.

The letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen was sent on Tuesday and signed by Adidas, Esprit, Levi Strauss and Puma, among others. Labour rights organisations American Apparel & Footwear Association and CNV International also signed the document.

The letter requested the prime minister to address four key issues in the sector – amend the trade union law, repeal the law on associations and NGOs, drop all outstanding criminal charges against union leaders, and respect and foster the important role of the Arbitration Council.

In the letter, the buyers said they exported $9.5 billion worth of goods from Cambodia last year.

However, they said the amendments to the Trade Union Law made this month “fell short of international labour rights standards, failed to eliminate arbitrary hurdles to union registration, and restricted the ability of all unions to represent their members fully”.

“The credibility of Cambodia’s apparel, footwear and travel goods sectors are at stake. We urge the government of Cambodia to publicly present a roadmap, together with an inclusive tripartite national mechanism that sets out and implements, specific, concrete and time-bound steps to bring Cambodia in line with international standards on the above issues,” the letter said.

The buyers said they were concerned that the labour and human rights situation in Cambodia was risking the loss of schemes, particularly the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme and the US’ Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).

The president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, Pav Sina, said the content of the letter was in line with unions’ demands.

“These big buyers respect international standards when it comes to working conditions. Before they decide to buy products from Cambodia they look at whether suppliers comply with these conditions.

“The letter was an attempt to improve workers’ rights and working conditions,” he said.

Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia deputy secretary-general Kaing Monika said the letter was the result of political pressure on the companies.

“Our industry and the brands are just under external political pressure to do more in terms of workers and unions’ freedom. Freedom is good, but freedom with no responsibility and accountability would be devastating for any nation,” Monika said.

He pointed out that many of the buyers were active members of the Better Factories Cambodia Programme. The scheme, which has been running for almost 20 years, is designed to make Cambodia a safe sourcing destination, Monika said.

“Cambodia’s garment industry has become a victim of its own success and this is very unfortunate. Our little imperfections make better headlines and articles than our achievements.

“Ask experts or read reports. Which country’s garment industry in Asean and South Asia has better working conditions and labour and union rights than Cambodia? None!”

Monika said the arrest of workers and trade unionists mentioned in the letter were actually justified. These workers and trade unionists led violent strikes and demonstrations that caused injury to other people or property, constituting a criminal offence under Cambodian laws.

Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training spokesman Heng Sour took issue with the letter’s content. “They raise the same old issues even though Cambodia has already shown them that we have made progress in these areas when compared with other countries around the world,” he said.

Sour said an easy way to understand the progress Cambodia has made in recent years was to compare the Kingdom with other countries.

“I encourage the buyers to take a look at the law in Cambodia and that in other countries, and compare. They will see that Cambodia has generally done a better job than other countries.

“If they don’t even bother to do that, and don’t even listen to us, then no matter what we tell them, they will always reply with the same old statement,” Sour said.

Next month, the European Commission will make a decision on the EBA scheme. The European bloc could revoke, partially suspend, or keep it.

The manager of a factory that produces Adidas, Nike and Puma products in Phnom Penh told The Post that the factory owner is not concerned about the potential loss of the scheme.

“Suspending the EBA will not have a big impact on our operations. My factory is ready to shoulder the increase in costs from having to pay duties,” he said, adding that he was “100 per cent sure” that the EBA will not be suspended.