Garment Workers Appeal to US Ahead of Visit

Bou Sarong, 31, has difficulty paying rent on time. Living and food expenses suffer each month, she says, because the $45 monthly salary she earns at a Phnom Penh garment factory often arrives erratically.

The six-year veteran worker in the domestic garment industry said Sunday that late payment—one of the biggest obstacles facing factory workers—translates to small meals and poor health.

“I generally pay 1,500 riel (about $0.38) for food each day when I can budget, depending on a timely salary,” the MS Factory worker said. “But my food money goes to between 300 riel and 500 riel ($0.08 to $0.12) when payments are late. I get sick because I have to eat bad food sold on the pavement.”

Byoung Gun Park, factory manager at Sam Han Cambodia Fabric, which is under the same parent company as the MS Factory, said Bou Sarong’s claim is “100 percent nonsense.” Sala­ries, which possibly were delivered late this month due to the Water Festival, normally are distributed the first Saturday of each month, he said.

Bou Sarong, president of MS Factory’s Coalition of Cambodian Workers Democratic Union, is one voice among many calling for the US to hold Cambodia accountable for promises it made to improve working conditions in exchange for an increased US garment bonus quota.

Officials from the US State and Labor departments are due today to begin a review of the garment industry that could affect the number of garments Cambodia may export to the US next year. The trade agreement, which began in 1998 and ends in 2005, is directly related to working conditions.

Workers rights have only marginally improved in the past five years, according to a statement from the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Cambodian Coalition of Democratic Workers. The statement, issued last week to the US Embassy, insists the government makes empty promises to secure trade benefits but does little to secure workers rights.

“The employers still break the labor code by cheating workers on their wage and benefits, forcing overtime work, and firing and harassing our union leaders,” the statement said.

The greatest concerns include correct wage payment, penalizing employers for anti-union activities, and protecting workers and union rights in planned export processing zones.

An International Labor Organization report in June noted that wages frequently are paid incorrectly. Unions are calling for an official wage inspections scheme to monitor factories and suspend offenders’ export privileges. The scheme was discussed months ago, but Free Trade Union president Chea Vichea said nothing has been done and the government frequently postures for US visits.

Labor Ministry spokesman Ker Soksidney said last week that the Ministry would form a task force today to interview inspection team candidates.

The unions’ statement calls for export processing zone draft law to specifically protect workers and union rights.

The government last year reserved land in Koh Kong province for the zone, which would combine Thailand’s capital with Cambodia’s raw materials and labor tariff exemptions to create jobs and offer cheap manufacturing.

The zone could pose a risk to workers rights, according to the ILO, which has recorded legal restrictions to union rights in zones throughout the world. Even when labor laws are intact, physical boundaries surrounding the zones can block rights organizations from entering.

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh said Saturday that the zone’s draft law, including a pro-union stipulation, is a priority for the new government.

“There is no double application of the labor law in Cambodia. What we implement in Cambodia, we implement in the EPZ,” he said.

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