Labor Watchdog Studies Garment Worker Standard of Living

A Swedish labor unionist who spent a month studying Cam­bodia’s garment industry says workers here are not earning enough money to live decently.

She will provide that information to the Clean Clothes Cam­paign, an international effort to pressure retailers not to buy garments from manufacturers who treat workers poorly.

Carina Carlstrom of the Swe­dish-Filipino Association, a labor watchdog group, said she visited Cambodian garment workers in their homes as part of a fact-finding visit to the region.

“They are living four people in a small room, with no kitchen or washing facilities,” she said. Such rooms cost about $20 per month, which workers split four ways to meet their other expenses.

Carlstrom says workers must live that way because the $40 minimum wage has not changed in five years, while inflation has eroded its purchasing power.

“In that time, rice, fish, gas, motos—almost all expenses have doubled, but the salary remains the same,” Carlstrom said.

A $30 increase in the minimum wage and a shorter work week—44 hours instead of 48—are two of the demands voiced by workers who struck the industry re­cently.

Carlstrom has previously visited the Philippines and Bangla­desh. She said conditions here are about on a par with Bangla­desh and but not the Philippines.

In Cambodia, Carlstrom said, she heard many complaints from workers. “The main problem is they cannot refuse overtime, and they get exhausted,” she said.

Returning to their rooms late at night, they are vulnerable to attack. “Some have been raped, sometimes by management,” she said. Others complain that union officials are fired or punished for their activities.

Carlstrom said Cambodia has a fair labor law, but that too often it is ignored. So activists are in­creasingly organizing boycotts of companies that they say allow workers to be abused.

Though she had hoped to visit a number of garment factories during her visit to independently verify reports of working conditions, Carlstrom said she was only allowed to enter one, a large, modern installation on Pochen­tong Boulevard.

“The working conditions were not great, but they were okay,” she said of the plant. It is air-conditioned, provides a health clinic for workers ­and has clearly mark­­ed emergency exits, she said.

The factory is considered one of the better, worker-friendly factories in Cambodia, she said. But even there, conditions can be difficult. About 900 seamstresses work in one huge room, Carl­strom said, “and the noise level is deafening.”

Employees who iron clothing must stand all day, working in steam that can get very hot, Carlstrom said. Workers also said that the company does not provide paid sick leave, as it claims.

Company officials did not re­spond to several requests for comment.

Carlstrom said the Clean Clothes Campaign began in 1989 in Holland, and has spread to 12 major European countries. She said a number of organizations in the US support it as well.

In each participating country, 10 to 15 unions and consumer groups monitor where retailers buy their garments and under what conditions they were manufactured.

“We don’t ask people to stop buying clothes, but to ask questions about how they are made,” she says. “We ask people to write to retailers in their countries, and we can generate some mail.”

Carlstrom has also assembled a photo exhibit on Cambodian workers, which will tour schools in Sweden. “Once we know which retailers are buying from which plants, we can hold them accountable,” she said


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