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Report shows little sign of improvement at factories

Garment factory workers sit at work stations and sew clothing for export at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district.
Garment factory workers sit at work stations and sew clothing for export at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. Pha Lina

Report shows little sign of improvement at factories

A Better Factories Cambodia report shows little improvement in the continued use of short-term contracts and safety and health conditions for workers at surveyed factories, with total compliance of all exporting factories still stuck at less than 50 percent.

The International Labour Organisation’s compliance program conducts annual surveys of garment and footwear exporting factories, covering 395 of the 558 enterprises registered with Better Factories Cambodia (BFC).

Factories’ compliance with 21 critical criteria has increased from 30 to 46 percent since public reporting was introduced by the BFC in 2014.

“I think you need to look at the starting point; 30 percent factories compliant with all critical issues. After 3 years, this number is 46 percent which is a substantial increase,” said Esther Germans, program manager at BFC.

However, the report shows little change year-on-year when it comes to meeting health and safety requirements. Sixty-two percent of factories had staff working around hazardous materials and 70 percent made workers do more than the maximum of two hours of mandated overtime per day. More than 70 percent of factories, meanwhile, fail to provide workers with accessible toilets or nursing rooms.

What’s more, around a third of factories are continuing to use fixed-duration contracts, instead of providing workers with undetermined-duration contracts after two years of employment – highlighting an issue frequently flagged by unions.

Thirty-five percent of factories had not transferred workers to an undetermined duration contract after two years, which workers and advocates say affects job security and makes workers, such as those who are pregnant or involved in union activity, easier to let go.

The issue was aggravated after the Labour Ministry in November decided to interpret the law as making long-term contracts compulsory only after four years of employment, a move that appeared to extend the previous benchmark of two years, and was criticised by activists and unionists.

Seak Hong, a union leader at Kampong Chhnang’s Horizon factory, said workers there were only getting three-month contracts, hindering their union activities for fear of reprisals.

“We have a lot of struggle to organise union members in the factory, as they’re afraid the factory will not renew the contract again if they knew those workers are members of the union,” she said.

Employer representative Kang Monika said the report was an indicator factories needed to improve their standards, but he did not comment on poor ratings for contracting procedures or worker health and safety, maintaining there was some disagreement on the findings.

“The report is not 100 percent accurate,” he said.

Meanwhile, the survey found only four instances of garment factories using child labour, as compared to 16 cases in 2016 and 65 in 2014. The report shows a small uptick in freedom of association violations and hindrances in unions’ operations, BFC’s Germans attributed that to better reporting rather than an increase in union harassment.

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