Criticism Heaped on Rainsy After Garment Industry Threat

The Labor Ministry, nine independent unions and an industry group representing Cambodia’s garment factories expressed sharp criticism on Wednesday for opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s call for the E.U. to reconsider the country’s duty-free access to European export markets.

In a speech at the European Parliament in Brussels last week, Mr. Rainsy called on members to put pressure on the Cambodian government to improve its rights record by “mak[ing] them understand that this market is not open all the time without conditions.”

Garment workers leave the Hoyear factory in Phnom Penh's Meanchey District at the end of their shift in 2014. (Siv Channa)
Garment workers leave the Hoyear factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey District at the end of their shift in 2014. (Siv Channa)

The E.U. is the largest market for the Cambodian garment and footwear industry, which is a major driver of the economy. More than $2 billion in Cambodia-made garments were exported to Europe last year duty-free under the Everything But Arms trade agreement, designed to give a leg up to the fledgling export industries of developing countries.

The threat to the country’s largest industry elicited a sharp response from the government on Wednesday, with the Labor Ministry condemning Mr. Rainsy as “inhumane” for appealing to the E.U. to “close” its market to Cambodian exports

“This appeal is really an inhumane, irresponsible act and seriously affects the benefit to workers and their families,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that some 700,000 Cambodians work in the garment industry.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting garment factories, said there could be a great deal of damage to the sector if exports to the E.U. were reduced.

“E.U. has been the biggest export market for Cambodia’s garments, and any move by the union to slow down imports from Cambodia would mean smashing the rice pots of the workers,” Mr. Loo said in a statement. “Workers could lose their jobs as employers could move away from Cambodia because they could no longer export their products to the E.U.”

In a joint statement addressed to the E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, nine unions called on the E.U. to consider the effect on workers and their families if garment and footwear exports to the E.U. were blocked.

Not only should the E.U. “check and consider” the ramifications of export reductions, it should “continue cooperating and adding extra orders from Cambodia,” the statement said.

Mr. Rainsy said the government’s response—which included a threat by pro-government unions on Tuesday to organize mass protests against the opposition CNRP—mischaracterized his remarks.

“The government has oversimplified and distorted what I actually said in order to stir public anger against me for obvious political reasons,” he said in an email. “I did not call on the European Union to straightforwardly close its market to Cambodia’s exports.”

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