Heavy labor unrest is likely to continue through this month, as a large number of orders this time of year from US buyers keeps pressure on companies, leading to forced overtime and worker discontent, labor officials say.
At least three strikes involving thousands of workers have erupted in Cambodian factories in the past two weeks. This coincides with the upcoming annual donors’ meeting, in which Cambodia could be pressed to show improvement in workers’ rights.
The high season finds management and workers at cross-purposes. While factory owners say this is the worst time of year to protest over small problems, union leaders say it is the best time for workers to seek better conditions.
This time of year, factory owners have “many orders, so the factory needs workers to produce the clothes on time,” Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia official Cheth Khemara said.
At the same time, workers know if they complain, the factory will quickly find a solution, Cheth Khemara said.
“If the factory doesn’t solve the problem, the factory will be late to produce the clothes,” he said.
This plays into workers’ hands. Between March and June, “it is easy” for demonstrators to win concessions, Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia President Chea Vichea said. Factory managers are under pressure to meet their orders, and are likely to give in to workers’ demands in order to get them back on the production line, he said.
The Free Trade Union, the country’s most active union, last week sent an open letter to the US asking for protection for worker’s rights, claiming frequent rights abuses and factory strikes continue.
“Cambodian factory conditions remain desperately inadequate, and many workers exist below the poverty line,” Chea Vichea wrote to the US embassy. “We hope that the United States will attach strict conditions to its aid so that it will help improve conditions for Cambodian workers.”
A trade agreement with the US allows Cambodian factories a certain percentage of the US market each year. This so-called quota is directly linked to labor conditions here.
The US and other donor countries and international agencies, such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, come together June 19 to June 21 for the annual Consultative Group meeting to make aid pledges to the government.
The garment industry is the top export producer in the country, accounting for more than $1 billion and more than 80 percent of exports each year. But the industry is also awash with unrest, with workers complaining of rights violations, withheld payments and stifled union activism.
Lejo Sibbel, head of the International Labor Organization’s office in Phnom Penh, said that, in general, there are more abuses of forced overtime from factories pushing to meet orders.
Factory managers, meanwhile, say too many strikes and too much unrest will hurt Cambodia’s garment sector in the long run.
The high costs of doing business, including corruption, transportation and the cost of importing material all act as deterrents to investors, they say, while the low cost of labor and Cambodia’s generous deals with the US and Europe act as promotions.
Kong Sang, director of the QMI garment factory, said his workers “ask” to work more overtime during the high season. Strikes due to smaller problems usually occur during this time of year, he said.
Indonesian factories saw a fall in production orders after labor unrest there. Orders then to moved to Cambodian factories, Kong Sang said.
Factory owners and their workers have to understand each other, said Richard Dang, director of the Kin Tai garment factory. If workers make a lot of strikes, the factory will lose orders from US buyers, he said.
Likewise, if the factory doesn’t treat its workers well, inspection teams will report back to US buyers, and purchases will stop, he said.
Labor leaders say that so far, the government has shown little will to solve the problems of workers, forcing them to strike. However, Haing Sitha, director of the inspection department for the Ministry of Labor, said workers did not follow complaint and demonstration procedures.
“Cambodia is a democratic country. That’s why the workers have the right to make strikes,” he said. “The strikes can cause the factory to stop [production] because, so far, the workers making the strikes don’t respect the labor law.”
(Additional reporting by Brian Calvert)