Labor rights activists and a government official accused the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program of ineffectiveness in its monitoring of factory conditions following a deadly ceiling collapse on Thursday at a shoe factory in Kompong Speu province.
Moeun Tola, labor program head of the Community Legal Education Center, a labor rights group, said that Better Factories Cambodia had failed workers by not disclosing the names of factories that flout the country’s laws on factory health and safety.
“It just wastes millions of dollars,” Mr. Tola said.
“If the company does not have any will to fix [the problems], then Better Factories Cambodia needs to disclose the information to let the consumers know,” Mr. Tola said.
“The consumers should be entitled to access the information of the workplace where they make the products, and then the brands will also be accountable for that.”
The Better Factories program was established in 2001 to monitor factory conditions. With an annual budget of about $1.2 million, the program currently monitors more than 300 exporting garment factories for non-compliance issues related to national laws. However, the program does not disclose the names of factories that are not complying with the law, and does not release such findings to the public.
In February, a team of Stanford University Law School researchers published a report titled Monitoring in the Dark, charging that the lack of transparency in the Better Factories program had actually set back garment industry standards for Cambodian workers, compared to their counterparts in China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The researchers also said that the ILO’s “confidential reporting practice” reduces incentives for factory owners and international brands to improve working conditions in Cambodian factories.
The two deaths and injuries on Thursday at the Taiwanese-owned Wing Star Shoes Co. Ltd. in Kompong Speu province’s Kong Pisei district, which employs 7,000 workers, comes nearly three weeks after a garment factory building collapsed in Bangladesh killing more than 1,100 workers, the deadliest single disaster for the global garment industry.
Authorities said the ceiling collapse in the Wing Star factory—which produces running shoes for the Japanese sports brand Asics—was due to dangerous building practices.
Jill Tucker, technical adviser for Better Factories Cambodia, said her program did not monitor the Wing Star factory “in any capacity,” as the monitoring of footwear factories by the ILO program only started last year.
Of the 45 footwear factories currently exporting shoes from Cambodia, only nine are being monitored by Better Factories, Ms. Tucker said, explaining that participation in the program is voluntary.
Regarding the ILO’s decision not to name factories that flout safety regulations, Ms. Tucker defended the way the program operates.
“We are in the process [of] taking programmatic steps toward publicly releasing some non-compliance information and the name of the factory it is connected to,” she said.
The Better Factories program also does not monitor factory construction standards, although Ms. Tucker said that issues such as electrical wiring, overloading on platforms and pathway obstructions are recorded.
“Better Work and Better Factories Cambodia are currently discussing possible new requirements regarding construction permits, including permits that cover all structures including any additions,” she continued.
Leng Tong, director of the Ministry of Labor’s occupational safety and health department, also took aim at the more than a decade-old ILO program, saying that a “more transparent” monitoring program by Better Factories could help make the country’s factories safer.
“I think the public should be able to see how each factory follows the guidelines and safety measures so that the factory will be ashamed and they will change what they need to implement,” Mr. Tong said. “Most of the garment factories do not care about our [factory] inspectors, but they care about the buyers,” he said.
The most recent Better Factories synthesis report, released last month, highlighted that only 57 percent of factories comply with maintaining pathways inside the factory that are free of obstructions. The report did not name any of the factories.
David Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based workers’ rights organization, said that ILO was trapped as full transparency regarding the conditions inside garment and shoe factories could mean many factories would simply opt not to participate in the program.
Stephan Sonnenberg, lead researcher of the Stanford report, disagreed. “What’s the point of going to the factories if they are only supplying reports to the managers?” Mr. Sonnenberg asked.
“If they [the ILO] are just going to extend to the footwear factories the same thing as the garment factories, there is little hope that it would change anything because it would only be the factory managers and [clothing] brands seeing these reports,” Mr. Sonnenberg said Thursday.
“Perhaps other stakeholders, like civil society, might be able to prevent these disasters from occurring. Unfortunately, it is always a disaster that leads some brand to take it [factory safety] seriously,” he said.
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