‘Systematic’ Labor Abuse at Garment Plants, Group Finds

Forced overtime, child labor, union busting, abuse of short-term contracts and shadowy sub-contracted factories remain rampant in the country’s $5.75 billion garment sector amid “dismal” government oversight, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in a new report.

“Work Faster or Get Out: Labor rights abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry,” released Thursday after interviews with hundreds of workers at dozens of factories last year, also blames the major international brands sourcing from Cambodia, including H&M and Adidas, of not doing enough to help workers.

The government and factories say the abuses are more the exception than the rule.

“But what we have found is systematic problems,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, said at the report’s launch in Phnom Penh.

“We see systematic use of [fixed duration contracts] to keep everybody on short-term contracts and ensure that they have no security at work. We see systematic union busing, retaliation against workers for exercising their rights guaranteed in the Constitution and in the Labor Law, and in the ILO [International Labor Organization] conventions that have been ratified by Cambodia,” Mr. Robertson said.

“We see systematic firing of pregnant women and avoidance of paying maternity benefits and other benefits that are due to workers. We see systematic harassment and forced overtime…and other basic things that the government and the factories should be providing,” he continued.

“This is not just one or two factories; this is the sector.”

Workers, unions and local labor rights groups have been complaining about many of the abuses raised in the report for years.

But HRW says its reports breaks new ground in exposing the extent to which factories sub-contract the work they do for international brands to secondary factories—often without the brands’ consent or knowledge—where oversight is typically much more lax, even non-existent. It was also at these sub-contracted factories, the report adds, where all the labor abuses the researchers uncovered were “particularly pronounced.”

Mr. Robertson said a false narrative had evolved in which the abuse of sub-contracting in Cambodia’s garment sector—one of the biggest employers and economic engines in the country—was minimal.

“What this report has done is pull the cover off of that story and found, in fact, that there are systematic problems in sub-contracting that are taking place,” he said. “This is something that has been known to the workers, but it hasn’t been presented in a comprehensive way like this before.”

Aruna Kashyap, a senior women’s rights researcher for HRW who also attended the launch of the new report, said workers reported harassment by their bosses for reporting the use of sub-contractors and urged brands to ensure that the employees get whistleblower protection.

HRW also urged all brands sourcing from Cambodia to make public the factories they officially source from, to help keep the use of sub-contractors in check.

Of the six brands HRW reached out to for the report, only H&M and Adidas said they disclosed their factories. Marks and Spencer told HRW that it would follow suit beginning in 2016. Gap said it was considering the idea. Joe Fresh and Armani did not respond.

“These international apparel brands need to help labor law compliance by publicly disclosing and regularly updating the names and addresses of their factories,” Ms. Kashyap said. “Global garment companies can and should monitor and remedy poor working conditions in supplier and sub-contractor factories.”

HRW says workers at 48 of the 73 factories its report covers said their bosses forced them to work overtime by threatening to fire them or cut their wages if they refused. Workers at 35 of the factories told HRW of union-busting practices, including the use of short-term contracts to discourage them from joining or forming local branches, and bribes to dissuade them from taking up leadership posts.

Ms. Kashyap said the government also had a “dismal record” of monitoring and punishing the factories.

Citing Labor Ministry figures, HRW says only 10 factories were fined in the five years from 2009 through 2013, and legal action initiated against just seven. Though the number of fines handed out last year jumped to 25, the report adds, “it continues to be abysmally low when compared to the number of factories overall and the persistent pattern of labor rights violations.”

Ms. Kashyap said the Labor Ministry was moving in the right direction by forming inspection teams and giving them a new checklist for factory visits, but was still not taking allegations of corruption among the inspectors seriously.

HRW says some of the government inspectors themselves admitted to the researchers of being regularly bribed by factories for positive reviews. It does not help that inspectors have to cover some of their work-related expenses out-of-pocket, the rights group adds, but blamed that on the government’s failure to give the ministry the funding it needed.

Mr. Robertson said he heard the same reports while working for the U.S.-based Solidarity Center in Cambodia more than a decade ago and called the government’s inspection regime “fundamentally broken.”

“How much has changed? Not very much in terms of the way the Labor Ministry operates,” he said. “It hasn’t worked this year, but it hasn’t worked for the last 10 years.”

Mr. Robertson and Ms. Kashyap met with Labor Ministry Undersecretary of State Hou Vuthy about the report Thursday afternoon.

Contacted afterward, Mr. Robertson said the undersecretary said he had not read the report, had not been briefed about it and had nothing to say about HRW’s long list of recommendations.

“It really was not a productive meeting,” he said. “He just kept talking about the importance that they had labor inspectors and were doing their jobs.”

Mr. Robertson said HRW was also getting “the runaround” from the Commerce Ministry, which has to power to issue and revoke export licenses for factories, in its efforts to schedule meetings with officials there.

Contacted by reporters, officials at the Commerce Ministry declined to comment. At the Labor Ministry, neither Mr. Vuthy nor a spokesman could be reached.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents the country’s 500-plus exporting garment factories, said its members “never condone” the abuses HRW lists in its new report. He said the factories committing the abuses were easily in the minority, the “black sheep” of the group.

“They spoke to 270 workers out of 600,000. Is that really representative?” he said. “We acknowledge that it happens, but it’s the exception.”

Mr. Loo said the Labor Ministry was getting better at monitoring the sector. If its inspectorate was underfunded, he said, it was not because of a lack of political will but a failure of the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program, which works with the government to build up its capacity to keep an eye on factories.

“Their lack of resources is a bad reflection on BFC; they’ve been here for 15 years,” he said. “I am sure there is no lack of political will on the part of the government.”

In a prepared response to the report, H&M said it was getting tougher with its suppliers to cut down on the use of short-term contracts and was rewarding factories that refrained from farming out its orders to other manufacturers without permission.

“H&M strives to continuously improve how we manage sustainability in our Cambodian supply chain, and our strong presence with a team of factory inspectors and project managers locally is one sign of our commitment,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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