Exports Grow Despite Record Number of Strikes

The protests at the SL Garment and Alim Cambodia Co. Ltd. garment factories this week were the latest in a record number of strikes to have taken place this year. The week’s events—which saw workers from Alim Cambodia in Por Senchey district set up a roadblock on Wednesday to prevent container trucks from passing, while workers from SL Garment on Tuesday violently clashed with security forces in Stung Meanchey—underscore the growing number of strikes that have been plaguing the sector.

According to figures from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), the number of strikes in the first seven months of the year hit an all-time high of 83, compared to 81 the previous year and just 18 in 2011.

But the surge in industrial action and international campaigns to draw attention to the plight of factory workers has not harmed Cambodia’s garment exports.

The value of exports for the first nine months of the year hit a record $3.65 billion, up 11.7 percent compared with the same period last year.

Sok Sophea, director-general of the international trade department of the Ministry of Commerce, said the garment industry is experiencing strong growth, with about 600 factories currently operating in the country.

Mr. Sophea said that large brand names are not deterred by the high number of strikes, as they spread their orders out among many factories in order to avoid delays.

“H&M placed orders amounting to 700 million units last year with about 55 to 60 factories,” he said. “Companies choose not to place all their orders in one basket.”

Labor activists say the figures only go to show how little brands care about working conditions in countries from which they source.

“[I]t’s the responsibility of clothes retailers and factories to monitor and enforce labor rights to ensure a level human dignity among employees” and if the standards are not raised companies should refuse to continue to source from those factories, said Anna McMullen, coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign.

“People are unaware of what happens in factories. They see stuff on the news yet they still buy the clothes. It doesn’t affect their shopping habits and brands know that because consumers don’t really make the connection between labor rights and the brands,” Ms. McMullen said.

Although the value of exports in the sector is rising fast, Ken Loo, secretary-general for GMAC, said industrial action is in fact damaging the industry’s reputation and profits.

“When you lose hours, workers have to do overtime to get the work done in time. So you end up paying 150 percent over what you normally would. Secondly, when workers do overtime their productivity drops, and thirdly, there are the overheads such as electricity to consider,” he said.

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