Cambodia’s Manufacturers Shift to Higher-Value Clothing

Cambodia’s factories are moving away from producing the most basic clothing items and diversifying to manufacture more intricate products for international buyers.

As the garment sector has grown over the past decade, most garment factories have stuck to producing items such as T-shirts and jeans due to the poor skill level among workers. But factories are now starting to produce items with more complex designs and stitching techniques.

“They are moving away from basic items,” said Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia. “In the past, the value creation is lower because it was just a simple transformation of fabric—cutting the dimensions. But now we do something to the fabric.”

Mr. Loo added that Cambodia still has a long way to go before it could produce items that appear in chic boutiques in the West due to the lack of skilled workers.

“That’s why we need a good vocational training institute. A lot of it also comes from on-the-job training. It is still a question of do we have the ability to do it here,” he said.

British retailer Marks & Spencer started buying higher-value items such as clothes bearing lace or rhine­stones a year-and-a-half ago from a factory in Kandal province.

“There’s an improvement in the Cambodian workers. People usually want to produce basic items, but now we have some items that are fashionable items,” said a manager at the factory, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as she is not authorized to speak with the media.

Swedish retail giant H&M currently sources both basic items and “more detail-oriented products” from the country, said Andrea Roos, a spokesperson for the brand.

However, she said Cambodia must invest more in developing the skills of local workers, making its own accessories and having a direct shipping connection with the European Union and U.S.

“From our point of view, it is im­portant that the country continues to invest in the following to grow and re­main competitive,” she said in the email.

For Spanish clothing brand Mango, their suppliers in Cambodia are only focusing on orders for T-shirts, pants and sweaters, said Sergio Odriozola, managing director of the Barcelona-based brand.

“We would like to find factories that can manufacture high-value garments, but for the moment it is not the case,” Mr. Odriozola said.

Peter Brimble, senior country economist of the Asian Development Bank, said Cambodia has made great strides in the past two years to diversify its garment products.

“It is a good thing for the industry because it means the industry is able to generate more value added in Cambodia and it creates an upgrading on the kind of manpower they need in factory,” Mr. Brimble said.

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