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


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


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Actually, for workers to lose their jobs and their prospects the inspectors actually don’t have to do much. Declaring an impasse in resolving a dispute and telling the workers to sue the employer in Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt courts is the equivalent of a death sentence for workers’ hopes. Officials at the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU) recently told me that they have worker reinstatement cases that have been in the courts since 1997 but still have not had a hearing. The sweatshop conditions and union busting continues despite the existence of "codes of conduct" adopted by many of the US and European garment retailers that are the customers for what these factories produce. These voluntarily adopted codes are supposed to govern labor and working conditions in all suppliers that are producing the brand of clothing that has the code. In reality, these codes have served primarily as corporate window dressing. In a tour of three garment factories that I took in September 1999, codes were posted in one corner of the factory—but all of them were either in English, Chinese or Thai, not much help to a Cambodian worker who only speaks and reads Khmer. In one factory producing Nike shirts for toddlers, covered by the Nike code that extols safe working environments and freedom of association, scraps of cloth were piled up near electric circuits and the union president was essentially kidnapped and driven around Phnom Penh by management so that she wouldn’t be at work when our delegation visited. At Cambodian Apparel where the three union officials were imprisoned at the behest of the owner, the workers making apparel for Dayton Hudson Corporation don’t get much help from that company’s code of conduct. Despite the proclamation that Dayton Hudson is "concerned with the worldwide state of being of human rights and environmental degradation", there is no mention of freedom of association in the code and no monitoring by the company of whether it suppliers comply. Even if the abuse is brought to their attention Dayton Hudson notes only that "any effort to suppress any of these standards will be met with strong objection on our part." Into this seemingly hopeless web of unscrupulous employers, corrupt officials, unskilled women workers, and sweatshop conditions comes a new hope for a better way. Prodded by a complaint filed by the AFL-CIO to withdraw Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), the tariff-free treatment for Cambodian exports to the US, the Cambodian and US governments concluded a bilateral textile quota agreement that includes for the first time ever conditionality on treatment of workers. Specifically, the agreement provides positive conditionality (in the form of up to 14% additional garment quota per year) if Cambodia faithfully enforces its labor code and the international labor standards contained in the seven core ILO conventions ratified by the country in July 1999. This is a first for the US, giving positive incentives for respect for core labor rights, and if it works, it could serve as a new model. It is also a breakthrough agreement for labor rights with an ASEAN state, a fact that has not been lost on some of Cambodia’s neighbors. The Cambodian government has reportedly been strongly criticized by other more authoritarian ASEAN governments for letting the labor rights issue be connected with trade. Now the key issue on the ground is "who monitors compliance?" Which organization(s) in Cambodia have the necessary credibility with employers, government, workers and the US government to make a determination that a factory is complying with the labor law and labor standards? Despite initial efforts by some UN bureaucrats and Cambodian government officials to make this project essentially a training project for government labor inspectors without any wider accountability for results, it now appears that an independent monitoring organization, operating under the authority of the ILO, will be created to train inspectors, conduct factory visits, report findings, and make recommendations to the US government on factory compliance. Where non-compliance can be remedied, systematic plans may be worked out between the Cambodian government and the factory owner to take corrective action. Ideally, those factories which do not comply with the law will be fined by MOL, and if they continue to violate the law, will face the risk of the ultimate sanction – being deprived of precious garment export quota to ship their goods to the lucrative US clothing market. Approximately $500,000 of US government assistance will be made available to fund the project. But there remain a number of unresolved issues.


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