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A factory or family dilemma

A worker sews items of clothing in a Phnom Penh factory last year
A worker sews items of clothing in a Phnom Penh factory last year. Factories in the garment sector have been accused of using fixed-duration contracts as a means of avoiding benefit payments for pregnant workers. Pha Lina

A factory or family dilemma

Being placed on consecutive short-term contracts in Cambodia’s predominantly female-staffed garment sector is forcing many women to choose between a family and a factory job, unionists and rights groups said yesterday.

Ken Chenglang, acting president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, said many factories were employing workers on fixed-duration contracts (FDCs) as a way of avoiding paying maternity leave benefits once the workers become pregnant.

According to the Labour Law, workers are entitled to benefits after one year of uninterrupted service at a company. But the threat of their employer not renewing their contract or forcing them to take unpaid leave if they fall pregnant leaves some workers on FDCs considering abortion, Chenglang said.

“We’re working with factories and buyers to ask them to stop using short-term contracts because the workers will get nothing when they deliver their baby,” she said.

According to a 2011 Yale University study titled Tearing Apart at the Seams, using FDCs in Cambodia to deny women maternity leave benefits “constitutes sex-based discrimination and violates protections for women included in both the Constitution and the Labour Law”.

But labour rights groups claim the practice is widespread. A 2012-2013 Workers Rights Consortium survey of 127 Cambodian factories found the majority employed most or all of their workers on FDCs.

Solidarity Center country director Dave Welsh said factories, and by association brands, frequently used FDCs as a way of cheating women out of maternity leave. Workers can only be employed on FDCs continuously for two years before their employer is obliged to offer them full-time employment or let them go, he added.

“This is a fundamental labour issue for Cambodia’s garment industry and it has become so widespread that it’s something the industry has become known for unfortunately . . . Up to 95 per cent of factories are complicit in preventing women from returning to work and damaging their job security,” he said. “We’re working to address this by preparing the equivalent of a class-action lawsuit by grouping factories by brand and trying to get them to change this practice.”

But Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said such contracts could be renewed beyond two years.

And while GMAC encourages its members to pay maternity benefits to workers on FDCs, Loo said that “if they haven’t worked for a year they aren’t entitled to maternity leave”.

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