As US trade negotiators arrive in Cambodia this week, a major garment workers union is urging the US to increase the garment quota next month.
Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said the union seeks the increase to counter rising unemployment and a shaky economy in Cambodia.
Each year, the US decides whether Cambodia has improved working conditions enough to warrant an increase in the garment quota, which determines the annual amount of Cambodian-made garments it can export to the US.
In his letter to US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, Chea Vichea said the union’s support for a quota increase does not mean the government has done all that must be done.
“We hear too many empty promises about workers’ rights [made in order] to get more quota, but see no action,” Chea Vichea wrote. He added that some garment manufacturers still fail to recognize union rights and some penalize activists.
But he said people need their jobs in these uncertain times, and the union hopes the US and Europe will increase clothing orders. He called on the US to support union goals of an increase in the minimum wage and a four-hour cut in the work week.
Today, the International Labor Organization will release its much-anticipated report on working conditions inside 30 Cambodian factories, a matter of great interest to the US negotiating team.
Independent ILO monitors have visited factories for months to assess how well manufacturers are following Cambodian labor law, and what areas need improvement.
Last year, the US approved a 9 percent increase in the quota. It is unclear what will happen this year, as the faltering US economy has already led to a sharp drop in garment contracts and some worker layoffs in Cambodia.
Sources who have seen the ILO report say that while it does list problems, it is fairly positive overall. However, the fear is that US buyers will leap at any chance to cancel contracts in a time of weak demand.
“Everything is on the table,” said one US embassy official. “The labor consultations this year have taken on an added sense of urgency,” given the economic conditions in the US.
According to Chea Vichea, the ILO report lists five major areas of concern, including “incorrect” payment of salary; involuntary overtime; illegal amounts of overtime; anti-union activities by bosses; and illegal strikes. The ILO report also cites specific examples of poor working conditions and abuses.
Chea Vichea said the union hopes the US government and buyers will not cancel contracts, but instead set “a six-month period for Cambodia’s government and garment companies to correct their mistakes.”