Better Factories Cambodia Program Extended

The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the government agreed Wednesday to introduce public disclosure of non-compliant garment factories as part of a three-year extension of the Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program.

Officials at the ILO also said that BFC would publicly report on unions found to be violating the country’s labor law through illegal strikes or other unlawful industrial action by workers.

“The agreement also promotes the enforcement role of the Royal Government of Cambodia and acknowledges the re-introduction of public disclosure,” the ILO and the government said in a joint statement released Wednesday.

BFC came under criticism earlier this year after the release of Monitoring in the Dark, a report by researchers from Stanford University that said that the ILO’s monitoring needed to be more transparent in order to bring significant improvements to the country’s wages and working conditions.

The Stanford report noted that wages and conditions in other major garment-exporting countries, including China, Indonesia and Vietnam, which have no comparable program, have improved at a faster rate than in Cambodia.

The government too has come under fire from garment manufacturers and unions for failing to properly enforce the country’s labor laws, leading to one of the highest rates of industrial strikes of any garment-producing country in the world.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), endorsed the extension of the BFC program, but said that the naming and shaming of noncompliant factories must be accompanied by a similar mechanism to flag noncompliant unions.

“If the ILO is really tripartite—if they are really principled in representing the government, employers and workers—they should consider a Better Unions program,” Mr. Sou Ieng said.

“We have Better Factories to monitor factories; there should be the same thing to monitor trade unions to make sure they comply with the law,” he said, adding that the vast majority of strikes in the country are conducted without union leaders having exhausted other channels of conciliation, as required by law.

Jason Judd, a technical adviser at BFC, said that the revamped program would include measures to encourage unions to follow the law.

“As with the larger public disclosure project, our goal is to create gentle public pressure [on unions] to come into compliance with the law,” Mr. Judd said, adding that the monitoring of unions would focus on “compliance or non-[compliance] with the legal requirements for strikes.”

“All ILO partners agreed that this was fair given that unions—not just employers—have obligations under the law,” he added.

Dave Welsh, head of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor advocacy organization, said that “illegal strikes” were often a last resort for unions whose demands, when made through formal channels, are ignored by factory management and the government.

“While there is no question some strikes are technically illegal, it is a chicken and egg scenario because employers fail to meet their legal obligation to collectively bargain,” he said.

When unions do follow legal channels of dispute resolution, “factories can ignore collective bargaining, the government doesn’t appoint a conciliator, so unions have no opportunity to legally strike,” Mr. Welsh said.

Sat Samoth, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, said the government is committed to exerting greater control over labor unions.

“Previously, the government has forgiven and tried to understand [the unions],” he said. “If the union commits wrongdoings, they have to be fined and punished…. Simply, the leaders of the unions have to be responsible before the law.”

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