British actress Minnie Driver arrived in Phnom Penh Tuesday to learn about the garment industry as part of Oxfam International’s Make Trade Fair Campaign, an Oxfam representative said.
When Driver first announced the trip last October, a London newspaper quoted her as saying she would stand beside teenage factory workers for “weeks, perhaps months,” to show how Western clothing companies capitalize on “slave labor” in developing countries.
Those reported comments prompted Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh to quickly defend, with memorable force, the garment industry’s budding reputation for respecting international labor standards.
“As a ‘mini-driver’ can send your golf ball out of bounds, Ms Minnie Driver can be harmful to Cambodia if she really meant it,” the minister said in November, reflecting the concern of many who felt a few negative comments by a celebrity could harm the country’s reputation and endanger the jobs of some of the country’s nearly 220,000 mostly female garment workers.
The government and Oxfam now appear to be on the same page, thanks to a series of meetings between Oxfam representatives and officials from the government, the UN’s International Labor Organization and various labor unions. Driver’s schedule has her in the country through Sunday and includes meetings with Cham Prasidh and Lejo Sibbel, a senior ILO official. Neither could be contacted Tuesday.
“Her visit is not being seen as a threat as before,” said Sok Siphana, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce and the country’s lead World Trade Organization negotiator.
In 1999, Cambodia and the US signed a bilateral textile agreement that, in addition to setting a quota on garment exports to the US, offered additional quota if factory working conditions “substantially” complied with Cambodian labor law and core labor practices.
The ILO, in cooperation with the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodian and financed by the US and Cambodian governments, began to inspect factory working conditions in 2001.
Garment exports, which totaled $26.2 million in 1995, topped $1.5 billion last year, comprising nearly all of the country’s exports. The ILO’s independent reports show that labor conditions have steadily improved as the industry has grown.
Child labor, forced labor and sexual harassment are now hard to find here, though problems such as the nature and frequency of overtime work and incorrect or late payment of wages occur more frequently.
Worldwide garment quotas are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, putting the country on a level playing field with garment producing giants like China, India and Pakistan. Since the country cannot compete on cost, government and industry officials hope to attract socially conscious buyers by retaining its reputation for good labor standards.
Oxfam officials said Driver’s visit will spread the message that clothes made in Cambodia are produced in a labor-friendly environment.
“We see [Driver’s] visit as being in support of the ILO inspection system, which is the best way forward for Cambodia to protect its industry,” Alex Renton, Oxfam’s spokesman in Bangkok, said Monday. “The last thing we want to do is harm Cambodia’s economic prospects or put jobs at risk.”
Driver arrived in Thailand over the weekend and viewed labor conditions there with a “wide open mind,” Renton said. Her trip will conclude Sunday, when Oxfam plans to host a fashion show and news conference for the global launch of its new report titled “Trading Away Our Rights: Women Working in Global Supply Chains.” Driver, Cham Prasidh, Oxfam officials and female garment workers are expected to speak at the event.
Garment industry officials greeted Driver’s visit with cautious optimism on Tuesday.
“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed,” said Ray Chew, secretary-general of GMAC. “I think she’s come here with a good purpose. The money earned by garment workers goes a long way in Cambodia.”
But others worried, as Cham Prasidh appeared to initially, about what Driver would say about the industry. Comments by celebrities are often transmitted quickly across news wires to millions of consumers; in a country staking the future of its strongest industry on reputation, Driver’s words are powerful.
“If she only goes to the bad companies and makes a statement, it’s not good for the good companies,” a Cambodian finance manager at a garment factory in Phnom Penh said Monday. “Whether it’s good or bad, she should make a fair statement.”