ILO Says Cambodia’s Factories Are ‘Chronically Non-Compliant’

Half of Cambodia’s garment factories monitored between November and April are “chronically non-compliant” with the Labor Law and the industry has experienced deteriorating working conditions and fire safety records in the past three years, ac­cording to the latest report from the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) factory monitoring program.

The biannual report released Thursday by Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) comes after criticism was leveled at the ILO recently for not holding non-compliant factories responsible by naming them in its reports.

The first report since the roof of a Taiwanese-owned factory in Kom­pong Speu province collapsed in May killing two people, the ILO this time around used unusually critical language regarding working conditions in the country’s factories.

“[I]mprovements are not being made in many areas including fire safety, child labor and worker safety and health,” the report says, adding that 51 percent of the 152 factories monitored between November to April showed no improvements despite five or more visits.

“The industry’s chronically non-compliant factories need to be held accountable, and non-compliance on critical cross-cutting issues highlighted in this report need to be addressed,” the report continues. “If this does not occur, Cambodia’s industry runs the risk of forfeiting the advantages that come from its reputation for decent working conditions.”

Fire safety remains a top concern, with 45 percent of factories failing to conduct fire drills every six months and 53 percent having obstructed paths, which could lead to difficulties escaping during an emergency.

Program monitors also suspected the employment of child laborers in 13 factories visited during this six-month period. BFC said the prevalence of child labor in the industry is “likely greater” than the 2 percent indicated by the report.

The change in tone in BFC’s report comes after it has come under fire in recent months for its ineffectual and non-transparent monitoring. Although the U.N.-affiliated program has been instated since 2001, a February report by Stanford University Law School researchers charged that the program had actually set back garment industry standards for Cambodian workers, compared to their counterparts in China, Indonesia and Vietnam—where no equivalent program existed until recently.

The researchers, along with labor activists and unions, called for the practice of naming-and-shaming non-compliant factories as a way to improve labor standards.

The ceiling collapse in May at Wing Star Shoes factory has also drawn renewed attention to the country’s lack of oversight in the industry for its structural and worker safety measures. As participation by factories in the ILO program is voluntary, Wing Star was not being monitored by BFC.

Maurizio Bussi, director of ILO’s Decent Work Team for Southeast Asia, said Thursday the program plans to release names of offending factories before September, but only if there is “full engagement” from the factories, the brands and the government.

“[I]t should be reinstated during the third quarter of this year,” Mr. Bussi said in an email. “[T]he public disclosure initiative will be primarily based on the ILO’s principles and standards directed at protecting workers from unacceptable forms of work.”

This includes conditions that deny fundamental rights, that put at risk the lives and security of workers, and that keep them in conditions of extreme poverty, he said.

Sat Samoth, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, seemed more unsure of the prospect of public disclosure.

“I’m concerned that this could cause them to file lawsuits against each other,” Mr. Samoth said. “Only the court can say if [the factories] are abiding by the law or not.”

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, remained steadfastly against this practice, and dismissed the latest synthesis report.

“It’s ridiculous because their monitoring is not totally transparent and it is not totally correct and we are challenging that,” Mr. Sou Ieng said. “It will only destroy the factories. Naming the factories is not helping at all, and this is against the spirit of helping factories.”

“No one will commit to this program anymore” if BFC publicly disclosed names of factories, Mr. Sou Ieng said.

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