ILO Initiative Could Unravel Cambodia’s Garment Industry: Manufacturers

cambodia-garment-protest-sept-2013.jpg A Cambodian garment factory worker (L) shouts slogans during a protest in front of Phnom Penh Municipal hall, Sept. 5, 2013.

A move by the International Labour Organization to name and shame garment producers in Cambodia that flout workers' rights and safety standards could damage the industry’s reputation and result in a drastic reduction in orders from buyers abroad, according to a senior manufacturing official.

Last week, the ILO announced that its Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program will return to publicly disclosing some of its findings beginning January 2014 based on the monitoring of over 450 factories.

Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) senior official Cheat Khemara told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that the ILO should reconsider its decision to release its findings to buyers and instead seek to resolve factory issues by first informing the government.

“The [relevant] government ministry will take measures against any factories found in violation if they refuse to improve their standards,” he said.

“We don’t want the ILO to immediately inform the buyers.”

Cheat Khemara’s concerns over the effect of the program on Cambodia’s garment industry echoed a GMAC statement issued on Monday informing all members that BFC staff on monitoring visits should be accompanied by government officials or have proof of government authorization to access factories.

“We want to state categorically that GMAC fully supports the push for greater transparency within the garment industry,” the statement said.

“However, we strongly oppose the fact that stakeholders are not given ample time and opportunity to provide feedback before the launch.”

GMAC said that the only official meeting it held with BFC to discuss public disclosure took place in August, eight days before it received a fact sheet on the program.

“GMAC was informed that BFC intends to launch the initiative sometime during the week of Sept. 17, 2013 despite GMAC’s repeated request for a pushback so as to allow ample time for more thorough discussion on how to best deal with the negative implications that might arise,” the statement said.

It cited Sat Samoth, Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labor and also the current chairman of the Project Advisory Committee of BFC, as expressing government reservations about the plan to publicly disclose information about negligent factories and the need for further discussions.

“If buyers have this information and they decide to cancel an order or put a sanction on a factory in Cambodia, it will have many drawbacks: The factory loses, the worker loses, Cambodia loses,” Sat Samoth said.

GMAC also criticized the decision by the ILO to launch its initiative despite reservations by the government and employers—two out of three social constituents that, along with employees, are equally represented at the tripartite organization.

“GMAC seriously questions the intentions of BFC for launching this more than three months before the date of actual implementation,” the statement said, adding that it would be “more logical” to provide additional time for further discussions to address concerns raised by stakeholders.

‘Factories to benefit’

The BFC initiative has been hailed by rights groups, including the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which last week urged garment manufacturers and companies currently supplied by Cambodia-based factories to lend their support, saying the garment industry would be the eventual winner.

The center cited the increasing number of protests by garment factory workers as well as the collapse of an internal mezzanine area at one shoe factory killing two workers recently, saying they had heightened awareness of working conditions in Cambodian factories and the prevalent lack of respect for human rights associated with the industry.

CCHR said that the plan would improve the lives of workers and help prevent work stoppages, adding that increasing transparency in relation to garment factory conditions should be welcomed and encouraged by companies sourcing from Cambodia.

BFC media officer Kam Tevea said Thursday that the project could not wait for the GMAC to respond to inquiries before carrying out inspections of factories.

He promised that any factories willing to work with BFC would benefit from their cooperation.

“Most factories will benefit from our publicly released findings because many of them maintain good [workers' rights and safety] standards, but the buyers are not aware,” Kam Tevea said.

“Some of the buyers have not read our reports, so they don’t know.”

Assessing factories

Under the program, the ILO-BFC would begin disclosing in January assessment information of individual factories’ compliance with Cambodian labor law and international labor standards, making it the only program in Southeast Asia to use greater transparency to accelerate improvements across the garment sector.

It will also for the first time disclose details about strikes and labor unions, noting unions’ compliance with legal strike requirements.

BFC was established after the signing of the 1999 U.S.-Cambodia Textile and Apparel Trade Agreement (UCTA) in order ensure that the country's garment factories were respecting worker rights in return for enhanced access to the U.S. market.

However, import quotas ended in 2005 and the BFC's role changed. Its public reports were compiled with less transparency, possibly due to the absence of a link between textile exports and improving labor standards.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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