From Killing Fields to Sweatshops: A New Start for Cambodia?
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, January 28, 2022


From Killing Fields to Sweatshops: A New Start for Cambodia?

By Philip Robertson FEBRUARY, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.2

As more and more Cambodian women leave the fields to work in factories, labor rights issues are coming to the fore, writes Philip Robertson Mention Cambodia and most observers’ thoughts immediately turn to the Khmer Rouge genocide, endless civil wars, landmines that cripple and maim, and the long road to national reconciliation. But increasingly, "Made in Cambodia" is popping up on the labels of GAP, Nike, Wal-Mart clothes sold in the US and Europe. Few consumers see the faces behind the label – and if they did, the sight would not be pretty. Cambodia has entered the modern industrial era on the backs of mostly young female workers, freshly arrived from the countryside, who are willing to work at $40 a month in an industry where payment of sub-minimum wages is the norm and employers from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Korea, and Thailand demand forced overtime that stretches into 12-14 hour days. In February 1999, there were 157 apparel companies concentrated in and around Phnom Penh, employing between 70,000 to 90,000 workers. Yet unlike many countries where sweatshop conditions are common, Cambodia has a modern labor code (passed in 1997) which offers numerous protections and guarantees the rights of workers to form unions. The problem is that it is infrequently enforced. Enter the world of the 18-25 year old women who form 90% of this workforce, and the image of Cambodia as a land of rice paddies goes out the window. Yet the problem of impunity often referred to by human rights groups does not change. In Kompong Speu province in the first week of January 2000, the vice-president of a local union at Cambodia Apparel Industry protests against late payment of wages and he and two other union activists are arrested and held in jail without charge, food or water for 26 hours at the behest of the provincial Governor who is close to the factory owner. At Quality Garment in Phnom Penh, the president of the union complains to management about a requirement for all workers to stand at all times which is resulting in workers’ feet becoming so numb that they have difficulty walking—and she is put on internal suspension where she is required to sit for two months in front of the factory and publicly humiliated as an example to other "trouble-makers". At Winner Knitting, three shop stewards receive a letter from the Ministry of Labor to be excused to attend an International Labor Organization (ILO) training and give it to their employer—but when they return from the training, they find they have been fired for missing work. Where owners don’t want to be troubled with worker complaints about forced overtime, unclean toilets and drinking water, sub-minimum wages, or failing to observe the many other provisions of the labor law, they form their own "yellow" unions. Even at the PPS factory of Vann Sou Ieng, the high profile head of the Cambodia Garment Manufacturers Export Association, workers report that union applications were handed out by security guards with an implied threat that they had better join. Needless to say, that company union was registered quickly by the compliant officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation (MOL, for short), who as the Ministry’s name suggests have a bit more on their plate than just labor. But then talk to the workers forming the independent union at Chu Sing factory in Phnom Penh, and they will tell a different story of Ministry officials telling them that they couldn’t register their union if its name included the word "welfare." Like so much that goes on in Cambodia, it’s money and connections that counts, and independent unions formed by workers earning $40 a month don’t have either. The Chu Sing workers filed their union registration application in September 1999, and they still haven’t received the registration that will (they hope) protect the union organizers and activists from employer harassment and firings. It is testament to how bad the forced overtime, dangerous work conditions, and arbitrary punishment is that these young women workers continue to form unions to protect themselves even after seeing so many previous unions busted. Workers file complaint after complaint to the MOL, yet the impunity continues, often with the active cooperation of Ministry labor inspectors who are paid official salaries of $20-30 per month. Employers usually ignore those very few orders to reinstate workers that the MOL actually does issue. Even worse, investigations in 1998 and 1999 by the Solidarity Center, a NGO connected with the AFL-CIO, found documented instances where Cambodian labor inspectors participated in the rigging of shop steward elections by employers, told pro-employer shop stewards at Quality Garment that they shouldn’t be concerned about union leaders because they could "be fired easily", and received under the table payments in connection with labor disputes.

1  |  2 | 3  next page »

more articles in this section