Government Rejects Report Alleging Abuse of Workers

The Labor Ministry has rejected a scathing new report from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) listing a litany of labor abuses by the country’s garment factories, insisting that government inspectors keep a close watch over employers.

On Thursday, HRW released the results of its interviews with hundreds of garment workers over the past year, as well as with government and factory officials. In a 140-page report, it says that forced overtime, child labor, union busting and the abuse of short-term contracts and shadowy subcontractors remained rife.

The report also called the government’s oversight of the $5.75-billion sector—by far the country’s largest export industry, and one of its most prolific job creators—“dismal.”

Citing figures provided by the Labor Ministry, the HRW report says the government fined only 10 of the country’s 500-plus exporting garment factories in the five years from 2009 through 2013, and only 25 more in the first 11 months of 2014. HRW described the figures as “abysmally low when compared to the number of factories overall and the persistent patterns of labor rights violations.”

In a statement released Friday, the Labor Ministry says it has worked with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and its Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program to improve labor conditions, and calls HRW’s report “unacceptable.”

“The Ministry of Labor strongly regrets and denies the report by Human Rights Watch,” the statement says.

“The international community, buyers and the ILO have supported and acknowledged that working conditions in Cambodia are in compliance with international standards and have encouraged other countries to learn from Cambodia’s implementation of the BFC program,” it says. “Therefore, what was stated in the report is unacceptable.”

The ministry adds that 49 teams carried out 7,191 inspections of 805 “enterprises” in 2014 and fined 128 of them. However, the statement does not name the enterprises, say how many of them were garment factories or specify how much they were fined.

A spokesman for the ministry could not be reached on Sunday.

On Thursday, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s exporting garment factories, said the 270 workers HRW interviewed for its report were too few to offer a fair portrayal of a sector that employs some 600,000 people. It also blamed any lack of resources on the part of Labor Ministry inspectors on BFC, which works with the government to improve labor conditions in the factories.

In its report, however, HRW says the program is being thwarted by factory managers who have either coached their workers to give BFC inspectors positive reviews ahead of announced visits or threatened them not to complain.

“In addition to being coached, workers were told to prepare for ‘visitors.’” HRW says.

“They were told to remove piles of clothes from their sewing machines and hide them, and were given gloves and masks just before visitors arrived. Lights and fans that were normally switched off were turned on, drinking water supplies were refilled, and underage child workers were hidden.”

While BFC took measures to counter such tactics, the reports says, workers still want a direct channel to the inspectors to lodge complaints without suffering retaliation from their bosses.

Reacting on Sunday to the Labor Ministry’s statement, Aruna Kashyap, HRW’s senior women’s rights researcher, said the ministry’s new figures were further cause for concern.

In December, the Labor Ministry, answering questions from HRW, said it had carried out 1,686 inspections during the first 11 months of 2014. Assuming the 7,191 inspections the ministry now says it carried out last year were all conducted at garment factories, she said, it would have had to conduct 5,505 inspections in a single month—an average of nearly 178 inspections per day.

“So we’re quite concerned about inspections that are carried out in such a cursory or hurried way,” Ms. Kashyap said.

And if the government was rejecting what workers told HRW, she added, “they’re saying that their workers are liars…. And that’s a very sad and disappointing message to send to workers.”

Ms. Kashyap said the government should also disclose more information about which factories were penalized, how much they were fined and whether they actually paid up.

“That’s when the public will actually know if the government is serious about holding the factories accountable,” the senior researcher said.

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