Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - US looks into local sweatshop

US looks into local sweatshop

US looks into local sweatshop

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

straight.

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

it.

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 said.

He added that the embassy provided support for Lichado and he "would take very

seriously the Government's interference in Lichado's rightful activities.

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