May Day marks a perfect time for the Cambodian government to embark on a new chapter on labour rights in the garment sector. Officials can show the world in very concrete ways that their commitment to transparency and accountability is real and here to stay.
The move towards greater transparency has already begun. In March, for the first time in years, the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training provided annual information to the public about the number of factories it inspected in 2014 and the number of fines it imposed. The disclosure was imperfect but a good beginning. Further such disclosures, including the number of factories inspected, labour rights violations found, fines imposed, and whether they were actually collected, will allow the public to see what the ministry is doing.
Cambodia’s garment workers produce clothes that are sold by the world’s leading brands. Yet many endure poor working conditions and discriminatory practices. Tracing the path of a garment from a small subcontractor factory in Cambodia to a larger export factory to retail stores around the world is difficult.These supply chains exist in the shadows, with little transparency.
Driving around Kandal province and Phnom Penh in late 2013, labour activists pointed out to me many small garment factories that looked like oversized car garages or dreary residential buildings. Virtually all were unmarked – one factory in Phnom Penhwas only identifiable as a garment factory because of the advertisement for workers posted on its door.
Workers have varying levels of information about the garments they produce. Sitting in a little roadside shack tucked away deep inside Kandal, I interviewed women who worked in a small garment factory. They had no ID cards. Instead they said they received slips of paper with numbers scrawled on them: a number for each worker. They were not sure what the factory was called but thought it had a Chinese name. Their factory had no sign when we drove past.
Some of the workers in the small subcontractor factories could tell me that the finished products were being sent to larger factories and which brands they were producing for. In other cases I drew a dead end: the workers could not even name the place where they worked. Instead they used nicknames for their location.
There are many puzzles about the Cambodian garment industry that make it difficult to monitor labour rights. For example, how many factories exist and what are their names? If it is difficult to know a factory’s name, then there is little chance of verifying whether it is registered, and even less whether it gets inspected by government labour officials.
Women workers from many factories told me about forced overtime and being fired if they became visibly pregnant. For example, in one subcontractor factory, workers said when many orders came in, they were forced to work on Sundays, on weekdays until 9pm and sometimes overnight until 6am – all without overtime wages and in fear of losing their jobs if they did not comply.
Transparency is key to improving conditions and ending labour violations. When I met last year with officials from the Labour Ministry, I asked them how factories could operate under such poor conditions year after year and go undetected. They looked baffled and finally conceded the possibility that they did not have a full list of garment factories in Cambodia.
The ministry maintains that there are about 1,087 garment factories on their records. This is fewer than the 1,200 garment businesses registered with the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts in 2014, meaning that at least 100 factories are escaping government Labour Law monitoring.Rights advocates and unions in Cambodia believe the number of unregistered, uninspected factories is much higher.
While Cambodia’s labour inspections should be expanded, they also need to be improved. The inspection system has long suffered from neglect and is plagued with allegations of corruption. Ministry officials told me no money was earmarked for labour inspections. Inspectors were left to fend for themselves, paying travel and food expenses out of pocket.
In practice, factory bribes often seem to subsidise inspectors’ expenses. Two former inspectors told me that factory management gave inspectors money in envelopes. Workers from several factories told me about other examples of corruption. They explained how managers used personal connections with the local police to silence workers raising concerns, and witnessing police showing up at the factory to receive bribes.
On the positive side, the Labour Ministry now says it is aware of the many challenges and has started to initiate reforms. But if the government really wants to tackle the poor conditions in factories and their subcontractors, it should back the need for greater transparency. The ministries of Commerce, Labour, and Industry and Handicrafts should make public a list of all garment factories, their locations and the nature of permissions they have and keep this updated.
Prime Minister Hun Sen should direct the Labour Ministry to expand inspections, streamline the system for registering and enrolling factories, and oversee efforts to improve coordination among ministries. Labour inspection reforms are also needed, and officials should develop a roadmap to make the system more open and accountable.
This is important for government credibility, the reputation of the garment industry and above all to improve labour conditions. Transparency and accountability can help ensure that the garment industry remains not only an important source of employment for many Cambodian women, but a fair and safe one.
Aruna Kashyap is the senior researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.