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H&M's suppliers guilty of labour rights abuses, report alleges

Garment workers producing clothing for H&M hold a banner during a protest in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2014.
Garment workers producing clothing for H&M hold a banner during a protest in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2014. Vireak Mai

H&M's suppliers guilty of labour rights abuses, report alleges

A new report has alleged labour rights abuses at Cambodian supplier factories for apparel giant H&M, as more than 500 garment workers gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday to air some of the same concerns over working conditions during a workers’ forum.

An independent investigation by Asia Floor Wage Alliance, which interviewed 201 workers at 12 H&M supplier companies in Phnom Penh and the surrounding areas, found that a large number of workers at nine of the factories were improperly employed on fixed-duration contracts, while many were forced to work long overtime hours and threatened with termination if they became pregnant.

“Out of 42 workers employed on fixed duration contracts, 28 did not receive social security, maternity or seniority benefits,” the report found.

Short-term contracts make it easier for employers to terminate workers with no severance package, and limit workers’ ability to participate in unions, said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union. From 1994 to 2004, short-term contracts represented only 10 per cent of contracts in the industry, Thorn added, but have since skyrocketed.

Thorn said the government should take action against employers and threaten to shut down their business if no improvements are seen, but was doubtful the government would step in to address the issues. “Now, the government is a little bit slow, especially when it comes to punishing the employers,” he said.

“Employers want to cheat the workers,” Thorn added, noting that it’s still common for companies to terminate a worker’s contract if the worker becomes pregnant.

H&M didn’t respond to a request for comment as of press time, but a company representative told Reuters that it was collaborating with trade unions, governments and the UN to improve working conditions.

Moeun Tola, executive director of labour rights group Central, said that H&M has said that it’s committed to paying workers a living wage, but the commitment was just “propaganda”.

Many workers are forced to work overtime in order to survive, he added.

“Otherwise, your income won’t be adequate,” Tola said, adding that if workers say no to overtime once or twice, they are blacklisted. “We don’t see any progress from the government, except from the health insurance scheme,” he said.

The preponderance of short-term contracts was also the most commonly held grievance at a workers’ forum yesterday organised by the Workers’ Information Center, which was attended by about 500 workers.

“The employer would like to do short-term contracts because it is easy to fire the workers if they join any union activity,” said Mak Chan Sitha, a coordinator for the Workers’ Information Center. “This is still our concern for workers, that their work is not stable. They are afraid that they will lose their job any day.”

Garment worker Chan Tona yesterday corroborated Chan Sitha’s characterisation of the situation, saying that she was only offered three-month contracts, “but if I join any union’s activities, I will face firing”.

A Ministry of Labour spokesman could not be reached yesterday, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government just acts as a mediator between the employers and the employees, and added that improvements have been seen in the garment industry.

“Employees understand their rights,” he said.

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