CAMBODIA'S garment industry has been given a reprieve from threatened quota- limited
exports to the US this week but with the good news has come the warning that it is
time for the industry to clean up its act.
US officials are due in Cambodia to discuss the quota in late January. One of the
key reasons driving the proposed limit to the giant US market has been factory conditions.
On Dec 21 the Ministers from Commerce, Industry and Social Affairs ministries told
a meeting of about 120 garment factory representatives that it was time to end violence
against workers and to sort out recruitment procedures - specifically they want
the use of recruitment brokers tidied up.
Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said that the brokers go to remote areas where they
promise villagers they will find jobs for them. They then charge the worker between
$80 and $120 which is paid back out of wages.
The process has been criticized as an expensive rip off of poorly paid workers.
And Prasidh said it did not make sense for companies to use people employed in this
He said they often can't concentrate on their work because they are worried about
covering the necessities of life when faced with a substantial debt.
"If you recruit an employee from the broker, in their mind they are always thinking
about the money they have to pay in commission to the broker and their mind is not
on the machine," he said.
"And they are easy to woo, to join strikes because they need extra money."
Prasidh has some personal experience of dealing with recruitment - he is chairman
of the Foundation for the Cambodian People Poverty Alleviation (PAL).
The foundation helps people find work but does not charge commissions and will also
help with transportation and food costs if people go for an interview far from their
He said that so far he had placed 600 people in the garment factories and had another
900 who had contacted the foundation looking for work.
Prasidh also had some harsh words for factory owners who refuse to attend meetings
with factory inspectors to deal with problems at their companies.
He said in some cases factory owners have been invited three times to come to a meeting
but they never showed up.
He said he was most concerned about the behavior and attitude of middle management
and supervisors in some companies.
"The problem is the supervisor who says if they [female employees] are fired
they will be the prostitutes" he said.
"This word I don't want to hear.
"This is not a country of prostitutes.
"The owner should take care with their supervisors.
"You should educate you supervisors to understand Cambodians or you could recruit
local supervisors because they are Cambodian and they understand local workers."
Suy Sem, Minister of Industry Mines and Energy and the former Minister of the Social
Affairs, told people at the meeting that he knew from his time in the previous portfolio
that it was the middle management rather than the owners who created the problems.
"The owner does not beat the worker but the middle management, they slap the
workers. This is true," he said.
"The law is not written to say ëbeat the worker'.
"They should be educated, the middle management, in the law and to respect the
law not to use violence on the workers."
Sam Heng, Minister of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation
said that if all the factories were to respect the law there would be no problems
with quota threats and this would benefit the industry as a whole.
Heng suggested that if owners wanted to avoid problems with workers one of the key
things they could do was to make sure their salaries are paid on time.
"If their salaries are delayed even for only a few days they have problems because
they have to pay rent for their room and food," he said.
Heng also added his voice to concerns about foreign middle management.
He said that some foreign supervisors are racist and inclined to favoritism.
Meanwhile the industry as a whole is in a state of flux. Prasidh said that currently
there were 111 factories operating and plans for another 139.
But at the same time some factories have closed and others have laid off workers.
Just over 70 percent of the goods manufactured are sold in the United States with
Europe taking most of the balance.
The economic crisis has pushed down the price of labor in nearby countries which
is making it hard for local companies to compete internationally.
Some factories have laid off staff saying their customers have turned to Indonesia
for their supplies.
Thai Pour garment factory has just suspended about 100 staff according to Sav Phan,
a company official.
He said that in the last year the factory had been busy but this year it was very
quiet and the factory could not afford to keep on staff when they had no work.
"This year the number of customers is down and the customers who used to buy
clothes from here are turning to Indonesia. Maybe it's cheaper there," he said.
Roger Tan, secretary of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC),
said that it was cost that was driving away customers and this was forcing the current
cut back in the industry.
He said a major problem was that the manufacturers calculated the prices in dollars
while in other countries the local currency was used which was giving them a 60-70%
"Before Cambodia was cheaper than other countries but now Cambodia is expensive,"
"If you find the place which is cheap you will go there to buy."