A police crackdown on striking garment workers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, last week left at least four people dead and several others wounded. But they are not the first casualties in the Southeast Asian country’s race to the bottom to prop up the garment industry. Unless things change for the better, they won’t be the last.
Worker unrest has been evident in Cambodia for several years. However, the latest flare-up of violence is not simply a tale about a faraway place where garments make up 80 percent of exports. It is deeply connected to the West. In choosing not to intervene, American and European multinational companies — particularly the top global apparel brands that source their clothes from the country — are enabling both the repression and the mistreatment of garment workers in Cambodia. In fact, these companies are also directly responsible and are well positioned to stop the violence and improve labor conditions.
But they have done very little so far. Seven global clothing companies, including the Swedish retail-clothing company H&M and the San Francisco-based clothier Gap, have publicly condemned the violence and called for a negotiated settlement to the crisis. But they should use their clout with Cambodian authorities to push for higher labor standards and demand an immediate end to the repression.
Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries, with a large rural population, has a garment industry that employs 600,000 people. In 2013, its garment sector increased production by more than 20 percent, to $5 billion in annual exports. Since the United States — its largest trading partner — signed a free-trade agreement with Cambodia in 2006, the country has been hailed as a model of reform for an industry notorious for sweatshop conditions. The agreement emphasized health and safety rights as well as the freedom of garment workers to form unions. Or at least that has been the rhetoric.
However, global trade has instead contributed to worsening labor conditions in Cambodia.
The problems started in 2005, when the World Trade Organization lifted quotas on garment exports to the United States, forcing China and India to mobilize their vast workforces, and in turn pressuring Cambodia and other developing nations to lower labor standards in order to compete. Relaxed labor standards led to deteriorating work and health conditions for Cambodian workers, mostly young women. Epidemic mass fainting on the job from poor factory conditions — high heat, fumes and long hours of work — became a global scandal in 2011 when 300 workers at an H&M factory fainted in one day. In May 2013, the collapse of two factory buildings led to two deaths and dozens of injuries.
Analysts note that large chunks of the workforce in Cambodia’s garment industry are women from rural villages who are increasingly seeking work in urban areas but don’t earn enough to pay rent. Low-wage protests and poor living conditions resulted in record labor strife. In 2012 there were four times as many garment strikes as the previous year, according to the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia, the main industrial association in the country.
“It’s an industry that’s paid below subsistence level,” said Jeff Hermanson, executive coordinator of the International Union League for Brand Responsibility. “Workers are treated as a commodity or worse, and are not valued. It’s not surprising that we end up with a general strike.”
Protests are risky in Cambodia. Workers who organize are commonly fired or charged with illegal activity. In the dawn of 2014, undeterred workers have joined the growing political opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nearly three-decade authoritarian rule. They are demanding a monthly minimum wage of $160, while the government has offered only $100.
Factory owners form the base of the ruling People’s Party. However, according to Hermanson, they contend that unless Western brands, like Adidas and Old Navy, offer them a higher price for their garment products, the factories cannot agree to the minimum wage demands.
In addition to the labor crisis, Cambodia faces an ongoing political standoff. Since the disputed election in July 2013, the National Rescue Crisis, a coalition of the country’s various opposition parties, repeatedly insisted that the People’s Party had been re-elected under dubious circumstances. It has asked the unions to embrace their call for broader democratic reforms. The hastily built coalition has struck fear into the government, forcing the ruling party to use police in order to break up peaceful demonstrations.
This is exacerbated by the fear that pressuring the companies to increase wages will force them to flee to countries with even lower labor standards, including Myanmar, which only recently opened its borders to foreign investors. This scenario terrifies the Cambodian government because garment production is the nation’s primary industry. As such, the heavy-handed police response to last week’s general strike is not surprising. Hermanson says workers and activists should treat the fear that multinational corporations would relocate to other countries as a bluff, in part because, as wages rise in China, these companies face limited alternatives for relocation. Besides, Hermanson notes, “it’s not possible for these global brands to move their production overnight.”
Whether the threat of moving production is credible or not, the plight of Cambodian garment workers should catch the attention of the international labor and human rights movements, largely because improving conditions there could serve as a model for low-wage workers elsewhere. It is imperative for the human rights community and international labor activists to continue pressuring multinational companies to uphold fair labor standards around the world. Americans, too, who purchase products from these brands, face a moral and practical imperative to pressure them to uphold ethical business practices regardless of where they operate.
Hermanson says such activism is crucial, since it has improved and can continue to improve wage and labor conditions for workers around the world. He notes his recent efforts with unions in Honduras, which led to an increase in wages and unionization at two factories that produce garments for Fruit of the Loom, a Kentucky-based clothing manufacturer, as a notable example of such citizen advocacy. There is ultimately no reason to believe global companies cannot thrive while at the same time paying living wages in places like Cambodia, and also establishing standards for labor conditions in the industry worldwide.