EU trade threat could make Cambodian factories worse for workers—unions

Workers speak of an industry beset by forced overtime, unsafe working conditions and the obstruction of unionisation.

cambodia garment workers at apartment
Garment workers sit on the floor of their apartment during a lunch break in a suburb of Phnom Penh June 26, 2013. Most garment workers who arrive from the provinces to work at factories in Cambodia's capital live in tiny apartments packed into crowded buildings. Image: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The European Union’s move to revoke Cambodia’s duty-free access could force major clothing brands out of the manufacturing hub and worsen conditions for workers, industry experts said.

Cambodia has six months to convince its biggest export market that it has arrested a backslide on human rights and democracy.

If it fails, the EU will strike it from the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which could trigger a chain of events that advocates fear will rob them of their strongest leverage point in the fight for improved working conditions.

“We cannot depend on any authority or any procedures inside the country to protect the rights of workers,” said Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, which has about 20,000 members.

“If we don’t have the EBA, then we will no longer be able to pressure big brands and consumers in Europe over the treatment of workers.”

About 700,000 people - mostly women - work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which accounts for the lion’s share of the country’s $5.8 billion worth of exports to the EU each year.

Workers speak of an industry beset by forced overtime, unsafe working conditions and the obstruction of unionisation.

But in recent years their plight has been pushed into the spotlight, with advocacy groups running campaigns that have forced brands to clean up supply chains in a race to retain their share of an increasingly aware consumer market.

“The brands are the ones who have the power to push employers to respect the law and the rights of workers,” said At Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union.

At Thon pointed to the Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) initiative - a project of the UN’s International Labour Organization that since 2001 has held all exporting garment factories to a prescribed standard.

Are [big brands] they really accountable, are the really committed? I don’t think so. Just like in business, they are competing with other brands to take credit and increase credibility.

Khun Tharo, programme coordinator, Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights

“This concept has helped to push for improved work conditions and wages,” he said, adding that if Cambodia was to lose its biggest export market, the project could become redundant.

Wages have risen sharply in Cambodia’s garment sector, to a minimum of $182 per month this year from $61 in 2012.

But Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, said union leaders were giving brands too much credit.

“Sure, wages have increased, but at the same time we have seen the overloading of livelihoods - higher production targets, longer overtime - in order to achieve those wages,” he said.

In 2013, Swedish clothing giant H&M pledged to pay a fair living wage to 1.6 million people working in factories it sources from around the world.

In 2018, the world’s second biggest fashion retailer held a summit in Phnom Penh where executives said they were yet to deliver that promise to a single worker.

“Are they really accountable, are the really committed?” Khun Tharo said of brands in general. “I don’t think so. Just like in business, they are competing with other brands to take credit and increase credibility.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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