Calls for big-name apparel brands to take more responsibility for working conditions in Cambodian garment factories are growing louder as representatives of retail companies ranging from H&M to Wal-Mart arrive in Phnom Penh for a semi-annual buyers’ forum this week.
In a year marked by a fatal building collapse at the Wing Star Shoes factory in Kampong Speu, mass demonstrations and bankruptcies, brands operating in Cambodia find themselves under an increasing amount of scrutiny in the international media, Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Centre/ACILS, said.
“Unlike other years, there are more people watching,” said Welsh, one of several stakeholders speaking at the forum of about 25 international brands tomorrow. “Generally, Western media paying attention to working conditions puts the pressure on them.”
Since it began three years ago, the forum has presented a unique opportunity for brands, government officials and workers’ rights advocates to gather together to discuss industry issues, said Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser for the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), which began organising the conference three years ago.
BFC will soon be making changes of its own, Tucker said. Currently, the industry monitor writes confidential reports on conditions in export factories. Brands have the option of buying these reports. But, in the next month or so, BFC will begin making certain aspects of these reviews public, Tucker said. She has not yet announced what will become public and what will remain private.
Tomorrow, the first day of the forum, will focus on the industry in Cambodia, Tucker said. Thursday’s sessions will concentrate on Vietnam.
The collapse of a storage level at Wing Star – a supplier to Japanese footwear brand Asics – killed two workers in May and came just weeks after more than 1,100 workers died in a massive collapse at the Rana Plaza garment complex in Bangladesh.
The collapses and international media coverage that followed put Western brands in the spotlight, demonstrating the unsafe conditions in the factories that supply them.
“We believe there is an even greater impetus now to manage health and safety issues in the supply chain,” said Johannes Hackstette, a spokesperson for Puma, in an email.
The company, which will be represented at the forum, has since “enhanced” safety standards for its suppliers, he said.
H&M, another brand attending the forum, also expects to discuss building, electric and fire safety, an emailed statement from press officer Elin Hallerby said.
High-profile demonstrations have also led to major brands becoming directly involved with Cambodian garment workers, Welsh said, noting that the trend is a relatively new one.
In March, Wal-Mart vendor Saramax and H&M vendor New Archid announced they would pay a combined $145,000 to workers at Kingsland Garment (Cambodia) Ltd after the factory shut its doors late last year, owing hundreds of thousands in unpaid wages to workers.
“[Brands] can’t turn a blind eye and pretend they don’t know what’s going on anymore,” Welsh said.
Frequent strikes, such as a recent 6,000-worker strike at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd, could also largely be avoided if employers were pressured into engaging in serious collective bargaining with their employees, Welsh said last week. Currently, factory management wants to “have their cake and eat it too” by refusing to negotiate with workers, and wanting to avoid strikes at the same time.
In preparation for face time with representatives of about 25 international brands, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) has formulated a list of demands that vice president Kong Athit says the brands have a responsibility to ensure are met.
“This year will be more interesting than the other years,” Athit said. “In the past, we were only pushing the producers.… We have to be more forceful with the buyers rather than the [factory] owners.”
Despite a booming industry that accounts for more than 80 per cent of Cambodia’s exports, workers have seen little progress in securing a viable living wage and see little enforcement of labour laws protecting them, Welsh said.
Increasing the minimum wage is the principle demand C.CAWDU is presenting before the brands and government officials, Athit said. By 2014, C.CAWDU wants minimum monthly wages for workers in garment and shoe factories to rise from the current $75 to $147. From there, Athit said, C.CAWDU wants wages to increase by 20 per cent each year until 2018.
“People are living in poverty,” Athit said. “They are suffering from these low wages.
In an email, Hallerby of H&M said the company supports higher wages, but it “does not own any factories and therefore does not set or pay factory workers’ wages”, and factories often supply several brands. She also noted that “despite this, we obviously have a great responsibility to everyone who contributes to our business”.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia who plans on attending the forum, said many issues brands raise in reaction could be solved if they “put their money where their mouth is”.
“If compliance is so important, start paying more for Cambodia,” Loo said.
An earlier version this story incorrectly stated that Better Factories Cambodia provides paying member factories with confidential reports.