The persistence of dangerous and demeaning forms of work remains a major challenge for the Kingdom’s development, according to the UN’s annual Human Development Report (HDR) launched yesterday by the United Nations Development Programme.
Dubbed "Work for Human Development", the 2015 report finds the Asia-Pacific region home to the highest prevalence of trafficking, child labour and forced labour, with the latter accounting for 56 per cent of the global 78 million.
In Cambodia, some 64 per cent of total employment is deemed “vulnerable employment” by the International Labour Organization, characterised by inadequate earnings and conditions inimical to fundamental rights.
Cambodia this year achieved a “medium” ranking in the Human Development Index, scoring 143 of 188 countries and registering improvements in life expectancy, education and per capita income.
But experts inside the country pointed to the document’s call for governments to implement policies addressing inequitable realities in their labour markets.
“The reason for limited opportunities for decent employment is the dominance of low value-added manufacturing and a large informal sector,” says Napoleon Navarro, senior policy adviser at UNDP Cambodia.
“Upgrading of jobs requires Cambodia to take advantage of regional value chains that offer higher value added. It is no longer about creating just any job.”
Navarro noted that the additional challenges posed by Cambodia’s low level of human capital, which he said were being addressed by government reforms to the education sector.
Despite these obstacles, the 2015 HDR singles out the Kingdom’s readymade garment sector as a model for labour standards in a globalised world.
“Low wages and compromises over working conditions are not essential for maintaining competitiveness in export markets,” it says, pointing to the positive effects for workers and industry alike of Cambodia’s agreement with the United States to adhere to workers’ rights in return for increased imports.
Labour rights groups, however, were quick to take issue with the UNDP’s characterisation of Cambodia’s industry as a success story.
“It is a dangerous claim to hold up Cambodia as global benchmark, and one that would come as disturbing to many garment workers,” says Joel Preston, a legal consultant with the Community Legal Education Center, pointing to overtime, short-term contracts and low wages, which compel workers into conditions akin to forced labour.
“We have very blurry lines between the private sector and government,” he explained, “with a minimum wage only $8 above the poverty line, it is very hard to take seriously that the government is making any effort to provide dignified work.”
Garment Manufactures Association of Cambodia spokesman Ken Loo yesterday categorically dismissed Preston’s characterisation of short-term contracts, but declined to comment on the broader report.
The Ministry of Labour was not available yesterday.