Samer Muscati / Human Rights Watch

Cambodian garment workers rise up and face a crackdown

Report by Human Rights Watch details poverty wages, forced overtime, retaliation and discrimination in $5 billion sector

When it comes to buying a T-shirt or jeans, most consumers pay little attention to the product’s provenance. But a new report on conditions at Cambodian garment factories shows why shoppers should care: A chronically overworked and underpaid workforce could well be behind their latest purchase.

Cambodia trails China and Bangladesh in total clothing exports. Yet an estimated 700,000 workers in the Southeast Asian country sew and package over $5 billion worth of clothing, textiles and shoes every year — constituting a third or more of the country’s GDP. It’s a powerful sector and, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), one riddled with abuse. 

The report finds that in factories supplying clothes to Armani, Adidas, Gap, Marks & Spencer, H&M and Joe Fresh, among others, workers — nearly all of them young women — are paid a pittance. Many are forced to work double and triple shifts, kept on temporary contracts and face retaliation when they try to unionize or become pregnant, advocates say. Such alleged abuses continue despite guarantees in Cambodia’s 1997 labor law and oversight by Better Factories Cambodia, a non-governmental body established in 2001 as a condition of trade with the U.S.

HRW’s review of current conditions is based on interviews with 270 workers and dozens of experts and industry stakeholders. Quotes from factory employees reflect the constant pressure to get orders out:

“We have to sit and work till we finish the quota. … We cannot use the toilet,” one woman says. Another adds:  “They keep raising the quota. First, it was eight lots, then it increased to 15 lots, then they made it 25, and now 30.”

Fear is a recurring theme: “A worker requested permission to not do overtime work. The leader terminated her. … We are too scared after that.”

New wage labor

The Cambodian garment sector is relatively young. It was established in the 1990s, in the aftermath of decades of fighting. With a more stable government, foreign investors saw an opportunity to profit by building a garment industry.

In a short time, urban wage labor became the default for hundreds of thousands of young women. But their low pay and poor working conditions are unacceptable, HRW and advocates say.

Recently, through mass strikes and protests, garment employees have won a series of increases in the minimum wage: from $80 per month in May 2013 to $128 as of January 2014. Pay still falls short, however, of the government’s own living-wage calculation — between $157 and $177 per month in 2013 dollars. 

Modest increases have come at a price. In 2013 and 2014, dozens of workers and activists were arrested, fired and even killed.

“Cambodia has taken a huge step backwards in terms of freedom of association. They’ve arrested prominent trade-union leaders; they used lethal force to shoot and kill striking workers,” said Joel Preston, consultant for the Community Legal Education Center.

Athit Kong knows what it is like to be targeted for union activities. He started out as a garment worker in 1999 and was soon fired for organizing workers. Now vice president of the 60,000-member Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, he says he believes the movement is at a tipping point.

“When I first started, nobody knew about the labor law. Now, workers know more,” he said. “This is a key time — do we get stronger or stay the same?”

Workers in a small subcontracted facility labor at the bottom of a supply chain for international brands.
Samer Muscati / Human Rights Watch

Pichda Kim, legal and labor manager for the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents nearly 600 factories, said the strikes of recent years were illegal and took place against the wishes of other workers.

“A few groups of people blocked the factory gates when the other workers wanted to work," Kim said. "The government hesitated to take any action to stop them because it has a bad image of using the law against freedom of expression.”

Kim added that the minimum-wage increase has already resulted in reduced orders and the closure of 30 factories since December 2014 — a claim others strongly dispute.

In addition to wage demands, workers and unions have called for greater job security, reasonable hours, the right to organize and freedom from discrimination. HRW found that employers routinely convince workers to sign short-term contracts in order “to avoid paying maternity and seniority benefits” required by law and suppress unionization. Kim of GMAC says it is the employees who prefer short-term contracts.

Many Cambodian workers have no contract at all. The HRW report details the rise of “casual” day labor and off-the-books subcontracting to small and home-based sweatshops. Pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment are also major concerns: Ninety percent of garment workers are women, most in their late teens and early 20s. 

The enforcers

Due to the impact of the garment industry on Cambodia’s economy, the government is loathe to enforce labor laws, activists say. The 2001 program, Better Factories Cambodia, was supposed to fill this void. It was the first to require every licensed garment exporter to submit to third-party inspection. “BFC was brought in because everyone knew that leaving it to the authorities would not be a credible exercise,” said Sophal Ear, professor at Occidental College and author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy.

But even though BFC is empowered to monitor some 570 export factories, it derives much of its funding from those very same enterprises. For nearly a decade — starting in 2005 when labor conditions were delinked from trade quotas — the findings on specific factories were not made freely available to the public. Last year, the BFC began releasing some information about individual factories on its website.

“BFC does not have any enforcement or corrective powers,” said Aruna Kashyap, author of the HRW report. “They can’t do anything unless the government or brands step in.” Ear stated further: “Better Factories isn’t going to know if an inspected factory actually gets its garments from an uninspected mom-and-pop subcontractor.” There is no reliable data on the scope of such informal work.

'The brand is the one who makes all these things happen, who sets the price.'

Athit Kong

Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union

Today, the BFC is run by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Beginning in 2007, the ILO and IFC expanded the BFC model to create the Better Work initiative in Haiti and a handful of other developing nations. Most of these programs are voluntary, however, and have no authority to compel monitoring, according to the ILO. The IFC refused comment.

“Better Work is a social-compliance model, and it can ensure adherence to existing laws,” said Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney researching garment labor in Bangladesh, where Better Work is in its planning phase. “It can be positive, but it will not get to improved labor standards not yet required by law: living wage, child care, daycare on site, the ability to form unions and to organize.”

Western brands and shoppers

In Cambodia, garment-worker unions and factory bosses agree on one thing: that international clothing brands wield enormous power. Western businesses determine piece rates and timeframes. Their rush orders and last-minute changes twist the supply chain, forcing workers into longer hours and more dangerous conditions, advocates say.

While most consumer brands have “corporate social responsibility” policies, few regularly publish information about suppliers or manufacturing conditions. HRW found extensive, unlawful subcontracting by Cambodian factories that supply clothes to H&M, Marks & Spencer and Joe Fresh. Of the handful of companies it surveyed, only H&M maintains updated factory lists.

Gap Inc. representative Laura Wilkinson stated in an email, “We incorporate BFC audit results into our own factory approvals and performance measures to help ensure factories treat their workers fairly and equitably.” The company does not disclose the names or locations of its factories. Armani, Joe Fresh and Marks & Spencer did not respond to similar requests for comment.

“The brand is the one who makes all these things happen, who sets the price,” said Kong, the Cambodian union leader. Yet this process is entirely opaque.

Kong offers a solution: “[The garment manufacturers] should report which brands reduce their orders because they don’t want to pay the minimum wage. Brands publicly said they would not pull out from Cambodia because of wage increases.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that BFC has not published factory-specific data since 2005. It changed this policy last year.

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