Workers peer through a locked factory gate in Sihanoukville. The sign reads: "Private property. All rights reserved."
Cambodia's garment sector is the Kingdom's largest export-earner and industry, but
needs to overcome a myriad of labor issues or risk elimination. - That's the sobering
picture unions, observers and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC)
face after the arrival of independent International Labor Organization (ILO) monitors
on March 30.
The garment industry is suffering from "a really bad image", says the ILO
project's Chief Technical Adviser, Lejo Sibbel.
"Whether that image is based on fact or not nobody really knows because there's
never been any analysis of the whole sector."
Investigating the industry's image problem will be the task of the long awaited ILO
Despite the signing in January 1999 of an historic three-year trade agreement between
the United States and Cambodia, independent labor monitors are only just now being
put into place.
Their task will be to investigate some of the abuses reported by unions operating
in the garment industry. Those complaints range from forced and unpaid overtime to
anti-union discrimination, under-age workers and unsafe working conditions.
While the right to freedom of association is enshrined in the Cambodian labor code,
summary dismissal of union leaders remains a regular feature of Cambodia's working
environment, unionists say.
Unionists who press their cases in Cambodian courts frequently find the law incorrectly
applied or due process ignored, says Seng Phally of the Cambodian Labor Organization.
"The courts have no capacity, no accountability, no tran-sparency and do not
provide good governance," he said.
However, GMAC President Van Sou Ieng, says that reports of the hard lot of Cambodian
workers and unionists are exaggerated.
"So far [in the past year there have been] around seven[court] cases out of
170 factories. I don't think that's a lot," he said. "170,000 [garment]
workers go to work every day and the majority are happy."
But Legal Aid Cambodia disputes the GMAC figures, saying they alone have received
10 cases involving the dismissal of 38 unionists since the end of last year.
LAC's statistics are further supported by the Labor Trends Report published by the
US Embassy in August 2000, which described conditions in garment factories as dominated
by "...a climate of impunity for factory managers who violate... freedom of
Meanwhile, unions, trade officials, image-sensitive corporations and the US government
are all looking to Cambodia as a possible model for future trade agreements linking
trade to working conditions.
The rapid growth of the industry is a result of preferential treatment handed out
by the US government first with the granting of Normal Trade Relations in 1996 followed
by the 1999 textile agreement.
The unique agreement, under which Cambodia is eligible for annual bonuses in its
export quota tied to improvements in labor conditions, came about after lobbying
by the US labor movement concerned at competition from low wage workers operating
in unsafe conditions. In the first two years only modest bonuses have been awarded.
A US Embassy spokesman described the quota increases as "encouragement"
rather than recognition of "substantial compliance" with the labor code.
The Embassy source said that "In the absence of the ILO monitors it was important
to recognize the Government's progress on labor law and on establishing the tri-partite
Labor Advisory Committee."
Unions have welcomed the ILO project but are skeptical about its potential to
bring about change as long as the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training
and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSALVY) is responsible for enforcement of labor standards.
Glue fumes are a daily problem for "New Star" shoe workers. applies toxic glue.
Chea Vichea, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia
(FTUWKC) criticized the program. "I don't see that it has the power [to effect
change] , because the scheme is voluntary so the good factory owner will join the
scheme but the bad factory owner will not," he said.
While all players acknowledge that Cambodia has some of the best labor legislation
in the region, they also concede that that legislation is rarely, if ever, enforced
and factory owners operate in a climate of impunity.
While legislation allows for heavy fines, complaints are usually settled through
"mediation" in which employers short-circuit the process with a small,
well-directed bribe, says Phally.
But Van Sou Ieng argues that such pay-offs are just part of the negotiation process.
"When the unionist says 'I know I'm wrong, I accept to go away but I need some
compensation', then why not [pay them off]?"
"Trade unions don't have any independence because the management tries to buy
the union leaders," he argues. "The labor code says that management can't
interfere, but if they do interfere [to buy off factory union leaders] then no-one
will enforce it, so management just violates the labor code."
While MOSALVY is entitled to rescind a factory's export quota, it has yet to do so
in a single case.
Sibbel acknowledges that the ILO project alone won't transform the industry, emphasizing
that the ILO is just one source of information that the US will use to make a decision
on the quota.
"The project will put some pressure on them... but if they don't want to change
then our project can't make them," said Sibbel of the garment manufacturers.
"GMAC sees the relevance of the project, they realize that they may get knocked
about a bit because of the information that we will release but I think they realize
that they need an instrument to clarify what the situation really is."
Despite some reluctance on the part of individual GMAC members, the organization
has matched the Cambodian government's $200,000 contribution to the project.
According to Van Sou Ieng, GMAC has embraced the project because it recognizes that
high costs are already sending the industry into decline. That decline is reflected
in the closure of 45 factory garment factories in the past year, he says.
"What we are looking at is the survival of the industry in Cambodia. Cambodia
is not a cheap producer and by 2005 [under WTO rules phasing garment quotas]... the
only way to survive will be to sell the idea to American consumers that we are socially
responsible," Sou Ieng said.
"That is our trump card against [cheap producers] China, India and Bangladesh."