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Comment: Liberty and labor - the games people play

Comment: Liberty and labor - the games people play

Just when even the most cynical of Cambodia watchers think they've seen it all, the

unthinkable happens. No, not the intra-coalition standoffs in Battambang. The flexing

of muscles by Cambodian men is quite predictable.

What was not on the radar scope was the determination and courage recently demonstrated

by Cambodia's female garment workers - most of whom look too young to drive.

For the past month these women have stood up to intense intimidation and threats

from factory owners, politicians, and the Cambodian police to demonstrate and strike

in order to demand improvements in their brutal working conditions. Forced to work

72 hour weeks, paid little or no overtime for their extra hours, subject to body

searches just to go to the toilet, trapped in huge, smelly, sticky fire-traps, and

with nothing to look forward to besides getting up early the next morning and experiencing

the same nightmare again in slow motion, the women simply revolted.

Sure, Sam Rainsy gave them a little nudge, but it was the women themselves, working

together in an entirely peaceful, constructive manner (imagine if the workforce had

been male) who succeeded in obtaining concessions such as a minimum $40 monthly wage,

a 48-hour work week, maternity leave, sick leave, and performance incentives.

The garment factory owners are in a state of shock. Who would have thought that a

workforce chosen by foreign manufacturers precisely for their well-known docility

would have staged such a spectacular revolt? Certainly not the Chinese, Hong-Kong

and Malaysians who were seduced into investing in Cambodia because of its abundant,

cheap and pliant labor force. Certainly not Secretary of State for Labor Suy Sem

(CPP), who instead of backing the "people" complained that "doing

such things will destroy investment and the economy." And certainly not Minister

of Industry Pou Southirak (FUNCINPEC), who warned that "wages need to remain

low or investors will not come to Cambodia."

Perhaps most surprising is the deafening and curious silence from Cambodia's most

populist politician, Hun Sen, who has said nary a word in support of Cambodian women

against their foreign employers? Instead, it has been Prince Ranariddh, a leading

member of the Royal family, who has taken up the cause, scoring major political points

by going on TV and radio night after night in support of the workers. What an irony:

the "communist" CPP throwing in with the "bosses," while the

erstwhile ruling class has stood up for the "people?" (Scholars fighting

arid fights about ideology in Cambodia please take note.)

While this situation wrong-footed many people, one of the most chagrined must be

the Asian American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI), which is receiving large sums of

American aid money to champion the rights of workers in Cambodia and other developing


Affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the United States' largest labor federation, AAFLI has

been strangely silent in recent weeks. Perhaps this is because of AAFLI's absurd

defense of Cambodia's new labor law, which will do little to protect workers' rights.

In these pages in December AAFLI's Country Representative Bama Athreya stoutly defended

the then draft law, stating that the law "squeaks by" international standards

and accused critics of having ulterior motives for their opposition.

Interestingly, Athreya also stat-ed that she agreed with many of the critics' concerns,

but stated that "we can advocate, but we cannot force them to change the law."

While this is an appropriate statement for public consumption, it rings more than

a little hollow in light of the fact that on 15 July 1996 Athreya addressed a letter

to Suy Sem, in which she stated that AAFLI had recently taken the "opportunity

to inform the National Assembly that, according to our review, the draft labor code

approved by the Council of ministers does meet minimum international labor standards.

This means that, if passed by the National Assembly, the new labor code will help

Cambodia to qualify for important trade benefits with the United States. It will

also make Cambodia an attractive site for foreign investment from all countries in

comparison with other nations in Southeast Asia."

Aside from raising serious issues about AAFLI's status as an

independent NGO - on what basis can AAFLI give Cambodia such assurances about American

foreign policy? - one cannot help but wonder whose side AAFLI is on? When the letter

was written the draft law had more than a few grave defects, such as:

  • Total exclusion of civil servants, virtually the only readily organizable labor

    force, from its coverage (would the AFL-CIO accept such treatment of civil servants

    in the US?);

  • Exclusion of household workers and domestic servants;
  • Requiring employers to provide male agricultural workers with rice allocations

    and housing for family members, but failing to grant the same benefits to women.

    (When Om Radsady, a Funcinpec MP, stood up at the end of the labor law debate and

    asked Suy Sem to amend this provision to give equal protection to women, Sem simply

    said "I cannot agree to this" and sat down. No more discussion took place

    and no vote was held on the proposal);

  • Allowing forced labor at the discretion of village chiefs for "civic obligations,"

    which are undefined;

  • Apparently banning child labor (under age 15), but creating loopholes wide enough

    to drive a tank through;

  • Allowing "company store" provisions, such as charging workers for food,

    uniforms and other essentials and allowing the costs to be garnished from wages.

    Such practices, in the US and other countries, have created a form of indentured

    servitude whereby a worker cannot afford to leave his or her employer because of


  • Virtually no health and safety regulations, very problematic in the garment industry

    where fire exits are almost nonexistent or are padlocked (to stop theft by workers).

    Wires regularly overheat and smoke masks are usually not provided to workers and

    ventilation is minimal;

  • No penalties for late payment of wages, a chronic problem in Cambodia which often

    leads to grave hardship for workers and their families.

The list could go on and on. So how could AAFLI send such a ringing endorsement?

What was its purpose? As an advocacy agency, and well aware that the only international

audience for this law - indeed, the main reason it was even proposed - was the hope

of gaining US approval for GSP and access to the American market (textiles being

at the top of the list), surely AAFLI knew better than to play its trump card so

early in the game.

Suy Sem knew what to do. He distributed AAFLI's letter to every MP before the debate.

The debate was a mere formality. How could mere MPs, unschooled in labor rights,

complain when the United States' designated international protector of workers rights

said that the draft met international standards?

In retrospect, many MPs realized what had happened. Sometime last year, Suy Sem stopped

negotiating with MPs over the law. While always a tough negotiator, he now "just

said no" to all suggestions for change, even on apparently simple matters such

as making the law gender neutral with respect to rice allocations.

What was the US position on the law? In spite of taking a very aggressive stand on

labor issues globally, most recently at the December 1996 WTO meeting in Singapore,

the US embassy has publicly remained silent, both on the labor law and the recent

spate of labor unrest. While the US was leading an abstract international charge

on labor rights just two hours away, in Cambodia where the lives of real workers

were at stake, the US said and did nothing.

How can this odd behavior be explained? Unless one subscribes to conspiracy theories,

the only conclusion regarding AAFLI is that they are either incompetent - not an

unusual trait among international NGOs in Cambodia - or they have institutional concerns

which at the time were more important to them than workers' rights. One can never

factor out the need for good relations with the government or one's patron.

The behavior of the US embassy is a little easier to understand as, relying on AAFLI's

advice, they saw a perfect opportunity to put a check mark next to one of their main

diplomatic priorities: the reintroduction of the Cambodian economy into the western

economic order.

The granting of GSP, now a certainty, will provide yet another

place for American companies to consider relocating as they disentangle themselves

from the constraints of high-paid, unionized American workers who have gone soft

from too much success at the

bargaining table, which of course only came about because of liberal labor laws protecting

workers' rights (which, with the dawn of the new labor law, Cambodia does not now


Ironic? But then workers rights in America weren't simply handed

over by the government. They were fought for, step by bloody step. In the final analysis,

the US government has no more interest in the welfare of Cambodian workers than it

does in its own, whose jobs it is shipping overseas in the millions at the same time

its corporations are swimming in record profits.

But perhaps the most fitting irony of this cautionary tale is that

Cambodian women have made great gains (however temporary and reversible they may

be if the government comes down on the side of the owners) by themselves, unaided

by their self-appointed western saviors. While government ministers were courting

investors, while AAFLI was caught in its own tangled web, while the US was pontificating

in Singapore, Cambodian women took to the streets and began to take control of their

own destiny.

This is truly revolutionary stuff, and deeply threatening to sweatshop owners throughout

Southeast Asia who depend on the very real threat of relocating and exploiting cheap

labor forces in neighboring countries to keep workers on their plantations in line.

If workers here make real gains, Cambodia could be a dangerous precedent, which is

certainly why, in spite of recent successes for workers, the last shot has certainly

not been fired in this


* Pseudonym. The author, a resident Cambodia watcher, wishes to remain anonymous.


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