Working conditions in Cambodia’s garment industry have worsened, the International Labour Organization said in a report Thursday, but manufacturers said the entire industry should not be blamed for the problems of a few factories.
Despite improvements until two to three years ago, the country’s third largest currency earning industry has suffered setbacks in the areas of worker safety and child labor, the ILO said.
“Unfortunately, our data shows that following steady improvement in working conditions from 2005 to 2011, conditions are now declining,” said Jill Tucker, Chief Technical Advisor of the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia program.
The ILO report said that its assessment of 152 garment and three footwear factories between November and April “demonstrates that improvements are not being made in many areas including fire safety, child labor, and worker safety and health.”
It said working conditions in the industry with a total of about 300 factories had declined despite global garment and footwear buyers increasingly seeking factories and business partners that show workers more consideration.
ILO identified 15 percent of garment factories surveyed as having kept emergency exit doors locked during working hours, putting workers at risk of death in the event of a fire, while 45 percent failed to conduct emergency fire drills every six months and 53 percent had obstructed access paths.
More than half of garment factories failed to comply with labor laws on issues related to worker health and safety including required long hours of overtime, excessive heat levels in factories, no onsite health and safety committee, and a lack of access to clean drinking water.
Other health and safety issues disregarded by more than 50 percent of garment factories included providing masks to workers, labels in Khmer for chemical containers, proper equipment for handling chemicals, soap and water near toilets and keeping access paths unobstructed.
ILO also confirmed that children under the legal working age of 15 were employed in at least three garment factories it gained access to out of a group of 13 facilities it suspected of hiring underage labor.
It said that the three footwear factories it reviewed “evidenced many of the same issues seen in the garment sector.”
“Waning attention to working conditions” was a trend amongst the majority of factories assessed not only between November and April, but also “over the last three years,” the report said.
The report called on the Cambodian government to strengthen enforcement of the labor law to crack down on perennially non-compliant factories.
It said employers’ organizations, such as the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), must begin “fostering a culture of compliance among their members” by rewarding excellent working conditions and assisting members that cannot or will not meet standards.
International buyers sourcing from Cambodia should publicly commit to compliance with Cambodian labor law, the report said, calling on the companies to approach challenges “on an industry-wide basis.”
ILO said its Better Factories Cambodia program would continue to share data on chronically non-compliant factories with relevant ministries in the Cambodian government and work to engage more international buyers in its program.
GMAC Senior Officer Cheat Khemara hit out at the report, saying factories had largely complied with Cambodian labor laws, though he acknowledged that “a few factories continue to abuse the labor law.”
“The percentage of factories that don’t respect the labor law may seem large [according to the report], but there are only a few [that are flouting the laws],” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“It’s unfair to say that the industry has declined as a whole on the labor situation.”
But President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers union Ath Thon agreed with the ILO findings, saying the report showed “the real labor situation in Cambodia” and calling for conditions to be improved.
“The factories lock their gates when the workers are working and sometimes they place goods in the exits, so what will happen if there is a fire,” he asked.
“Many pregnant women have also been fired from their jobs. This is a serious abuse of labor rights.”
Ath Thon, who is also the head of a new umbrella organization linking Cambodia’s unions, said that regardless of industry-wide efforts to change, inspections are “useless” at garment factories because many of the officials work as advisors for factory owners and overlook violations in their reports.
“Sometimes inspectors see irregularities, but because of corruption they don’t fill out reports. Often, powerful officials are backing the factories,” he said.
“These are major obstacles to factories improving working conditions.”
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
It is the country's biggest employer and key export earner.
In March the Cambodian government announced a higher minimum wage of U.S. $80 per month from U.S. $61 for garment and footwear workers, though unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.