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GMAC urges international community to continue supporting garment industry amid political crackdown

Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng (centre) speaks to union and factory representatives during a Labour Advisory Committee meeting last year in Phnom Penh.
Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng (centre) speaks to union and factory representatives during a Labour Advisory Committee meeting last year in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

GMAC urges international community to continue supporting garment industry amid political crackdown

Garment industry representatives and unions are urging foreign buyers to ignore Cambodia’s deteriorating political climate and to continue financially supporting the Kingdom’s largest export industry.

On Friday, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) issued an open letter to the United Nations, European Union, United States and other foreign embassies asking for continued economic support for the garment industry and its 700,000 workers.

The statement followed five separate letters from trade unions, urging foreign buyers to continue purchasing Cambodian garments despite the recent dissolution of the country’s main opposition and a clampdown on civil society and media organisations.

GMAC’s Deputy Secretary-General Kaing Monika said the organisation is concerned foreign buyers will reduce their purchases in response to the Cambodian government’s recent actions to stifle dissenting voices.

“We’re just worried there might be some misunderstanding by the US or EU about the decisions of our government,” Monika said. “What we are trying to say is to caution people not to misunderstand the situation in Cambodia.”

GMAC’s letter described Cambodia’s workers as “currently happy” with next year’s $170 monthly minimum wage and their benefits, referencing elements of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s charm offensive to win workers’ hearts ahead of the national election in July.

Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union of Cambodia, said the letter campaign was not a concerted effort among the unions and GMAC, but the organisations do share an interest in protecting the industry and workers’ jobs.

“Cambodia very much relies on the garment industry, and we support GMAC and we’ll continue to submit that statement to the EU Embassy and related embassy’s representatives,” Saly said.

In response to the rapid dissolution of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s primary opposition, the EU has pointedly noted that Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade status – which allows the nation’s garments and other exports duty-free access to their markets – is dependent on respect for human rights. The US, meanwhile, has pulled election funding, and lawmakers in Washington have publicly floated the possibility of sanctions.

Monika said he believed the EU would not cancel the EBA if they “correctly considered” the Cambodian government’s’ decision, but he does not believe losing EBA status would cause irreparable damage.

“Even if we’re going to lose it, we could still survive,” he said. “It would just demote a level of competitiveness. I think it would be an opportunity as well for the country to reform in order to survive.”

Representatives of the EU Delegation in Cambodia could not be reached, and the US Embassy declined to comment.

Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions President Yang Sophorn said her organisation also didn’t want to lose purchases from the US or EU, though it decided not to put out a letter. Sophorn said the onus was on the government to ensure Cambodia complies with foreign buyers’ requirements for human rights protection.

“If the prime minister makes the right decision for the Cambodian economy as well as workers, all people will benefit from it and there would be no more concerns about losing jobs and income,” she said.

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