UPDATED at 11:50 A.M. ET on 2020-02-12
Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand criticized Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday for not trying to maintain a trade scheme giving the country tariff-free access to European Union markets, a day before an expected decision by the EU on whether it will withdraw the privileges.
Thorn Sdoeurng, a laborer in Thailand, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the Cambodian people need the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme, which gives developing nations access to the EU for all products except arms and ammunition, to ensure workers have jobs. He also said the people do not support Hun Sen’s notion of getting rid of the EBA.
The authoritarian leader has dismissed concerns over EU pressure to improve Cambodia’s human rights record or risk losing its preferential trade status, saying that his government is prepared to pay additional taxes without the scheme.
“What Hun Sen is doing is only to serve this family. He does not care if people don’t have jobs,” Thorn Sdoeurng said.
“Hun Sen and his children have exploited the country so they have enough money while people like us have to work in Thailand,” he added.
Cambodian workers have migrated to Thailand in high numbers for decades for better-paying job opportunities, though they work in low-wage jobs in labor-intensive economic sectors such as agriculture, construction, fishing, and manufacturing.
Another worker, Sam Sambo, said that the prime minister does not want to implement the EU’s recommendations because he wants to maintain his power.
“If he was a good leader, he would resolve the EBA issue,” he said.
The EU’s threat to end the EBA program stems from the September 2017 arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha on treason charges, followed two months later by the dissolution of the CNRP, amid a wider crackdown on civil society and independent media.
The workers’ comments came in response to Hun Sen’s statement during a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday that Cambodia will not exchange its territorial sovereignty for EBA privileges.
“If they force us to follow them, we won’t do it,” he said at the ceremony. “I urge all people in the entire country to please stand up to protect our independence, sovereignty, and peace.”
Ath Thon, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, told RFA that if the EU withdraws the EBA, workers would stand to lose the most.
“We don’t want to see a disagreement between Cambodia and the EU over the EBA,” he said. “When we lose the EBA, workers will lose their jobs.”
Sam Rainsy ‘very concerned’
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy said he is troubled by the issue because Hun Sen’s leadership is endangering the people.
“We are very concerned,” he told RFA.
“Hun Sen should honor the EU’s recommendations because Cambodians also want the same thing as does the EU,” he said.
Sam Rainsy also said he believes that the EU will partially sanction Cambodia to allow time for Hun Sen to realize the consequences of refusing to abide by EBA conditions, but that the move will greatly affect all of Cambodia.
The EU warned in a preliminary report in November that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, pointing to the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February 2019.
Weekend media reports by Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review and Britain’s Financial Times indicated that the EU already decided on a partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA privileges on some goods that the Southeast Asian country exports to the bloc.
Sources told the FT that Brussels is expected to “maintain some support for the garments sector to help protect the livelihoods of factory workers.”
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences, accounting for more than 18 percent of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles — a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people — account for around 75 percent of EU imports from Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.