Representatives of global clothing brands Puma, Gap and H&M met with senior government ministers in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to discuss the lethal repression of a nationwide strike of garment workers last month as well as growing labor instability in the country.
The two-hour meeting at the Peace Palace, which was chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and attended by Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol and Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng, took place behind closed doors and saw the brand representatives express concern about the long-term viability of sourcing clothes from Cambodia.
The meeting opened with representatives of H&M and Gap, as well as Jyrki Raina, the general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union, saying they had requested the meeting to discuss last month’s strike repression that saw at least five workers shot dead by military police and more than 20 workers placed in prison without trial.
“What we are worrying about at the moment is the concern about weak industrial relations here in Cambodia,” said a representative of H&M, which is the world’s second-largest clothing retailer by sales and earned profits of $3.4 billion in 2012.
“We can see frequent industrial conflicts coming here. For H&M to continue to develop in Cambodia…we need stability, we need healthy industrial relations, a functioning wage mechanism and strong partnerships with all suppliers,” the representative explained.
“We need a sourcing country that is predictable [and] stable.”
Mr. Chanthol responded that the repression of last month’s strikes, which were called to demand a basic monthly salary of $160, had been an effort to quell growing “anarchy” that he said was being promoted across Phnom Penh by the opposition CNRP.
“This was clearly not a normal demonstration that you would expect in a dispute in industrial relations. It was [the result] of incitement by the opposition, who were in front of the factories…screaming, ‘Kick people out from the factories, stop working, get out, throw rocks, destroy factories, hurt the investors,’” Mr Chanthol said.
“Does the country have the responsibility to protect your investments if you have investments in the country?” he asked.
“Yes, the Cambodian government has the responsibility to protect the investors in the country, to protect the citizens of the country.”
Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng provided a similar account, also detailing the government’s decision last year to increase the monthly basic wage for garment workers from $80 to $95, and later to $100, which had caused the nationwide strike of garment factory workers.
Garment factory unions have called a second nationwide strike for March.
Sok Chenda Sophea, secretary-general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, asked the brand representatives to enlist the help of international unions to help “mediate” and convince workers that a basic monthly salary of $160 was an unrealistic request.
“Please do something, because this fight is still there,” he said, explaining that many workers had stopped listening to the government.
“The $160 has been injected by the opposition in people’s minds, and as you know, in every country…they don’t listen to the government. The opposition is more sexy, it is more appealing.”
A representative of Gap said that the brands acknowledged that the government had a job that was “tougher” than their own. But he said that the issue of 21 workers who were beaten and arrested by soldiers and military police and remain incarcerated without trial, was both a problem of ethics and public relations for the company.
“The challenge we’ve got as a global company at Gap is that, like some of the other buyers, we have customers around the globe who ask questions where we’re producing and how we’re producing,” he said.
“I would hope that out of this meeting, we can figure out the issue with the current detainees,” the representative said. “We need some confidence it is being dealt with in a very fair manner, because, from a media perspective, that may not be being portrayed at the moment.”
The Puma representative did not speak during the meeting.
At the meeting’s close, Mr. Chenda Sophea asked the brands not to “put oil on the fire” by speaking openly with reporters and overemphasizing the problems they have with the government.
“What I do not wish to see is that, out of context…The Cambodia Daily will say that you came to tell us: ‘Hey, we do care about the 23 people who are behind bars,’ Full stop. Nothing else,” he said.
Prompted by Mr. Chenda Sophea, a representative of Gap said after the meeting that it had been “constructive.”
A representative of H&M declined to be interviewed.
Mr. Chhon, who spoke only briefly during the meeting, closed the meeting by calling on the brands to be patient with the situation.
“Normalcy is coming back to this country,” Mr. Chhon said.
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