Hoping to encourage Cambodia’s infant labor movement, the AFL-CIO has reopened an office in Cambodia to teach workers how to organize themselves and build more effective unions.
“We’ll be working with union federations and factory level unions, teaching the principles of organizing and the rights of union workers,” said Jason Judd, country representative.
The huge US labor organization staffed an office in Cambodia from 1993 until the factional fighting of 1997, when the US abruptly cut funding to many projects.
Before its departure, the AFL-CIO helped draft Cambodia’s labor law, considered one of the strongest in the region. Now it will be looking to see how well the law is enforced.
The AFL-CIO’s return, officials said, signals two things: Cambodia’s improved political stability, and the unique role it is poised to play in an increasingly globalized economy.
“What’s happening here is exciting,” said Phil Fishman, the AFL-CIO’s Washington-based director of Asian affairs. “Cambodia has the opportunity to take a different path to developing its labor force, and that could be a marketing plus.”
The past few years have seen a spike in public outrage over sweatshop conditions behind major companies’ profits. Student groups and non-governmental organizations have protested against such profiteering, most notably at last year’s meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, in the US state of Washington.
Organizations like the Workers Rights Consortium, made up of 80 US universities, are committed to establishing international labor standards in the world’s factories, Judd said. The WRC director is scheduled to visit Cambodia this weekend.
Companies don’t want to be tarred as sweat-shop profiteers, said Barbara Shailor, the AFL-CIO’s director for international affairs. “Brand-name employers are appropriately terrified when the kids and the NGOs focus on a specific factory,” she said.
Though considered to have one of the better labor environments in the region, Cambodia has seen a string of protests and strikes—particularly from garment industry workers—in recent months.
Cambodia could carve out a profitable niche for itself in the global market as a country where workers’ rights are respected and working conditions are humane, the union officials said.
And, they said, the country is bound to fail if it tries to squeeze its workers.
China, with its huge labor surplus and historic disinterest in workers’ rights, will unquestionably undercut all competition when it finally enters the WTO, they said.
“Cambodia has the opportunity to become a model employer for the developing world,” Fishman said.
Already, he said, Cambodian labor officials “have deliberately chosen to stress workers’ rights, and they have been praised for it.”
The union officials will be watching closely to see whether the government is sincere in its commitment, he said.
And given the tragedies that have unfolded here over the past decades, he thinks the world would applaud eagerly. “Most people would love to see Cambodia succeed,” he said.
A more pragmatic reason for Cambodia to find a successful competitive niche is that the US quota system for garments is due to expire in 2005.
The administration of former US president Bill Clinton, at the urging of US textile unions, devised a carrot-and-stick system of quotas for developing nations, allowing those who improved working conditions to produce more clothes for the vast US market.
The system has worked for Cambodia, which each year saw its quota increase as workers and manufacturers made progress. “Unquestionably, the Cambodian government is very interested in quota increases,” Fishman said.
But it is unclear whether the current administration of US President George W Bush will support a quota system.
By 2005, however, Cambodia’s industrial base may have broadened. Already, a number of shoe and plastics factories have opened.
A typical pattern for developing country is to move next into electronics, the officials said. Another way for Cambodia to remain competitive is to focus on improving the skills of its garment workers, who now manufacture fairly low-skill, simple garments.
If workers get the training they need to make higher-quality and more profitable designer clothing, they might move ahead of competing countries in the region, the officials said.
Meanwhile, the union officials say, they will focus on the day-to-day job of building stronger unions.
“Our work will be to help the unions to organize themselves,” said country representative Judd. “We’ll be going after the key leaders to get them into training.”
Shailor said union officials are aware that the labor force they will be working with represent the first post-Khmer Rouge generation of Cambodians to grow to adulthood.
The fact that the nation’s industrial workforce is mostly young and female is particularly intriguing, she said.
“They are so young, and they have such potential,” she said. “There’s such optimism when you see young girls realize they have the power to taker control of their own economic lives.”
The union officials had high praise for the International Labor Organization’s ongoing program to monitor labor conditions in Cambodia.
Like the ILO, Judd will attend meetings of the Labor Advisory Committee as an observer. The local office will employ “four or five” Cambodian employees in addition to Judd.