BETTER Factories Cambodia, a division of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), released a report Wednesday citing continued improvements in labour law compliance among hundreds of Cambodian garment factories, but experts fear these gains are overshadowed by grim overall prospects for the industry.
Though acknowledging that approximately 60,000 jobs have been lost in the Kingdom's garment sector since November of last year, the ILO reported that 99 percent of surveyed factories paid full-time workers at least minimum wage, and that 84 percent of factories had at least one union. Just one underage worker was discovered among the 175 factories visited during the study, which was conducted from January 2008 to April 2009.
Questions remain, however, about how reflective the ILO figures are of the industry as a whole. Of 280 factories covered in the study, 258 were still operating as of July, Better Factories Cambodia manager Tuomo Poutiainen said.
In addition, any survey of the garment industry is complicated by the fact that many Cambodian factories are not registered with the ILO and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), Michael Smiddy, a senior consultant at the Phnom Penh office of Emerging Markets Consulting, told the Post earlier this month.
"There's a whole lot of subcontracting factories that are not members of GMAC, and how many people they employ and how many jobs have been lost there isn't clear," he said.
Garment factories are only required to register with the ILO and GMAC if they export their goods, and the ILO study was limited to registered factories. Tuomo Poutiainen guessed that there are between 70 and 100 subcontracting factories in Cambodia, but exact figures are unclear.
"That's a problem for the Cambodian economy - that so much of the economy is informal," Smiddy said.
Poutiainen said that this issue will need to be rectified if the Kingdom's garment industry hopes to match the efficiency and quality of competitors such as China and Vietnam, and urged subcontracted factories to sign up with GMAC and the ILO.
"Sooner or later, if they are serious and if they produce quality goods for exports, then they will join," he said.
The increased unionisation reported in the ILO study is another controversial issue for the garment industry. Strikes in Cambodian factories nearly doubled in the first six months of 2009 compared with the same period last year, from 12 to 23, with 17 coming from the garment sector, according to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police.
Roger Phan, secretary general of GMAC, said earlier this month that industry competitor Bangladesh was outstripping Cambodia in part because unions are weaker there and are therefore less likely to disrupt service.
"Whether [workers] understand that or not, we are losing business on account of that," he said.
Chan Sophal, president of the Cambodian Economic Association (CEA), also suggested that agitation for higher wages could be counterproductive for the industry as a whole.
"I think one of the reasons why the industry has not been very competitive is that [consumers] care more about prices during a low-income period.
They're not willing to pay a high price for labour-qualified products," he said. "I think the immediate future for the garment industry, especially this year, does not look very good."
Seventy-eight factories have closed so far this year, according to the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the Ministry of Commerce has predicted that garment exports will fall by "at least" 30 percent in 2009. Even with these challenges, however, factories looking to cut costs would be ill-advised to reduce workers' wages, Tuomo Poutiainen said.
"The key concern remains how competitive the industry can be in terms of quality, price and lag times. The working conditions at the level they are is an added value, a big one," he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHUN SOPHAL