from The Wall Street Journal..

July 8, 2013



The garment industry has transformed Cambodia’s economy, but factory working conditions remain poor. WSJ reporter Kate O’Keeffe speaks with an employee to see what it’s like.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—This small Southeast Asian country was supposed to become a model for the world apparel industry, with tough factory monitoring and strong worker protections.

But a dozen years after the United Nations’ International Labour Organization launched a program to manage Cambodia’s booming garment trade—the first of its kind in the world—labor activists say many factories still suffer from problems that triggered calls for more oversight in the first place, including the abuse of workers’ rights.

Accidents at two Cambodian factories in May, including one that left two people dead when part of a shoemaking factory collapsed, highlight what activists say are continuing unsafe conditions. Cambodia’s opposition party has made better working conditions one of its big campaign issues in the national election set for July 28, calling for the monthly minimum wage for workers to rise to $150, almost double the current level, and for working hours to be limited to eight hours a day.


“The core problem is the way the supply chain is structured, which exploits the most vulnerable people, the workers,” says Sanjiv Pandita, executive director of the Asia Monitor Resource Center, a nongovernmental organization focusing on Asia labor issues. Labor activists say the government, factories, brands and even some unions keep labor costs down for their own economic benefit. Workers—often extremely poor and uneducated—have little leverage.


“There is a lot of injustice in Cambodia” even after years of work to improve factories, said Lao Bunna, a 43-year-old who works in one of the heavily guarded garment complexes that line the chaotic roads into Phnom Penh, the capital.

Workers at Ms. Lao’s factory often feel faint because there are few windows and poor air circulation, she said. Her boss told her and other employees that they would be fired if they refused to work overtime, she added. She has declined to join a union, saying she fears retaliation from factory owners.

Her complaints point to gaps between reality and Cambodian law—which prohibits laborers from being asked to put in excessive overtime or work in overheated factories, and protects their right to unionizes—and the voluntary ILO program that is meant to monitor adherence to those laws.

Officials at the factory declined to comment on these issues. Cambodia’s Secretary of State of the Ministry of Labor Oum Mean said the country doesn’t have problems with garment factories because it has appropriate legislation in place to police them.


In May, the country’s minimum wage rose to $80 per month, from $66, the largest bump in over a decade. Even so, when adjusted for inflation, the wages of Cambodian garment-sector workers are equal to what they were in 2000, according to Bent Gehrt, Southeast Asia field director for the Worker Rights Consortium.

Meanwhile, employers are increasingly signing workers to short-term contracts lasting three or six months, which critics say let them easily terminate workers if they join unions or seek bonuses or maternity leave benefits. An April 2013 Better Factories Cambodia report said that 90% of the newly-registered factories it assessed say all of their workers are on short-term contracts…

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