The United States sent customs investigators to Phnom Penh to check out a foreign-owned
garment factory, following concerns it might have been using forced labor.
The investigators were called in by the US embassy after 50 workers were rescued
by police, at the instigation of human rights group Licadho, from the GT garment
factory where they said they were being held against their will.
The 33 Vietnamese and 17 Chinese workers complained of overwork, lack of overtime
pay, horrendous working and living conditions and long hours.
US ambassador Kent Wiedemann said that one woman had been made to work for 22 hours
He said he called for the investigation because goods produced by forced labor were
prohibited as imports to the US and because of the US's concern over labor issues.
He said in this particular case the workers treatment did not constitute forced labor
as defined by US law, but the factory had obviously "behaved badly" and
he had forwarded complaints to the labor and commerce ministries asking for an investigation.
He said the embassy was keeping the case file open.
He said the GT factory was not currently a holder of any US quota allocation so it
was unlikely to affect the bilateral trade agreement however it did raise the issue
of the treatment of workers within the industry and they would continue to monitor
The garment industry is Cambodia's largest export industry generating $700 million
turnover per year. The US takes about 70 percent of its output. Any threat to access
to the lucrative US market is a serious concern for the Government.
Meanwhile the initial investigation into the workers' complaints has stalled following
swift action by the police.
The workers had complained to the human rights group Licadho who notified a prosecutor
who ordered police to investigate.
Lichado director Eva Galabru said that the police raided the factory and released
the workers but the police then became concerned that they were illegal immigrants
though did not arrest them. She said Licadho arranged for food and temporary accommodation
but explained to police that they were not jailers and had no right to hold them
against their will. The Chinese workers returned to their homeland while some of
the Vietnamese workers found other work or returned home.
She said the police then detained one of the Licadho staff for a number of hours
and questioned her about the disappearances. She said the staff-member was accused
of assisting them to escape. The staff member was released after the intervention
by human rights workers from the United Nations.
Ambassador Wiedemann said that while this detention might have been due to an error
on the part of the police he was concerned about it.
"It was not a 'targeted attack', if it were I would take it up with the authorities,"
He added that the embassy provided support for Lichado and he "would take very
seriously the Government's interference in Lichado's rightful activities.