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‘Human rights the price paid’ for Kingdom’s SEZ growth

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Workers worked in the factory at special economic zones. Supplied

‘Human rights the price paid’ for Kingdom’s SEZ growth

The gains brought to the Kingdom by the establishment of special economic zones (SEZs) has come at a high price, with people becoming the victims of land grabs, poor labour conditions and environmental damage, reports the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

In its factsheet Cambodia’s Special Economic Zones and Human Rights, CCHR said the establishment of SEZs in 2005 was done with a lack of transparency and publicity, which left people unable to properly defend their rights. It also came without proper consultation with local communities, which resulted in forced evictions.

The wages and working conditions at SEZs, it said, were also poor. Moreover, the report said freedom of association at such workplaces were restricted, although unions have been allowed to be formed.

“While the advantages [SEZs] can bring in terms of economic development and trade are not to be neglected, the development and operations of SEZs are often intrinsically linked to human rights violations such as land grabs, poor labour conditions or environmental damage,” the report said.

SEZs come under the management of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) with a management group called the Cambodian Special Economic Zone Board (CSEZB), it said.

The Open Development Cambodia NGO recorded the situation at 38 SEZs across the Kingdom.

“Because they are public entities acting on behalf of the Royal Government of Cambodia, the CDC and the CSEZB must respect internationally recognised human rights as enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties ratified by Cambodia at all times,” the report said.

“However, there is no effective grievance or reporting mechanism allowing communities affected by the SEZ to report human rights abuses, in contravention of the [Cambodian government’s] obligation to ensure that all human rights violations are properly investigated and effectively remedied.”

CCHR laid out five recommendations to improve the situation concerning SEZs. They include refusing the creation of an SEZ unless the authorities have made environmental and social impact assessments and consulted with affected individuals and communities.

Others are the reform of the legal regime governing SEZs to align with international best practice and international human rights law, ensuring sub-decrees in establishing all SEZs to be publicly accessible, ensuring freedom of association for workers, and creating an independent, impartial and effective grievance mechanism for complaints.

Vann Sophath, CCHR’s business and human rights project coordinator, said on Tuesday that the report was intended as a message to the government and relevant stakeholders to address negative aspects and so improve the running of SEZs.

“If a development faces high risk then it won’t be sustainable. So any development that [negatively] affects the rights of the [community] or its workers’ labour rights is unsustainable, and people will [protest], which leads to confrontation."

“If such a situation occurs, it may not [put off] investors. But if a development respects human rights and [operates] without any problems, then it will run smoothly with good investment,” Sophath said.

‘Systematic way’

He said he did not have figures for communities which are complaining of problems with SEZs because CCHR had difficulty in accessing such zones.

CDC secretary-general Sok Chenda Sophea, who is also a minister attached to the prime minister’s department, could not be reached for comment.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said SEZs were created by private companies or as a joint venture and so were not under the supervision of the government.

Therefore, he said, any such establishment came under the agreement between the local people and companies concerned.

However, he said as a requirement, such companies must conduct impact assessments and report to the government before starting operations. The company must also show its contribution to the development of the surrounding area.

Siphan went on to defend the rights given to workers by the government to discuss conditions with the companies.

“We are open to letting them have a union that will [voice] their demands and defend the interests of their members. Workers don’t need to protest because we can solve problems in a systematic way. Workers and company owners are partners,” he said.

According to the report, an SEZ is a specific geographic area where special administrative regulations apply, such as a different tax regime, or benefits from different legal or logistical arrangements in order to attract business and investment.

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