It was a sight any labor official would love: A day-care center at the British American Tobacco cigarette plant, where about 20 children played with bright toys as their parents worked nearby.
Farther south on Route 2, the sight was not quite as cheerful at Tack Fat Garment (Cambodia) Ltd, where hundreds of blue-shirted women sat hunched over sewing machines in stifling air.
“I think the room is too hot for workers,” said lawmaker Son Chhay. “They are working like chickens.”
Son Chhay was one of a group of legislators who toured both factories on Tuesday as part of a National Assembly effort to better understand Cambodian working conditions.
It’s a hot topic these days, as a number of international labor groups turn up the heat on Cambodian employers.
For the past two weeks, eight independent monitors trained by the International Labor Organization have gone into Cambodian factories to see how workers are treated.
In September, the ILO monitors are expected to issue their first report on what they find, and those reports will be examined by US officials as they set Cambodia’s next garment quota, which determines how many garments factories here can export to the US.
Bad working conditions could mean little or no increase in the quota; real progress toward improving those conditions might mean a significant quota increase in the next garment trade agreement.
Cambodian manufacturers are still struggling with image problems stemming from a BBC report last year alleging garment manufacturers employ child workers.
Although the report was based on scant evidence, the publicity was so bad that image-conscious clothing corporations Gap and Nike Inc canceled contracts in Cambodia.
Groups like the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ Solidarity Council are supporting the ILO effort, while the US campus-based Workers Rights Consortium is monitoring conditions worldwide, including in Cambodia.
Son Chhay, the opposition party chairman of the National Assembly’s committee on Industry, Commerce, Public Works, Transportation and Telecommunications, and his fellow committee members spent three hours touring the two factories. They said they wanted to see first-hand whether employers obey the labor law and why some garment companies have shut down.
Chea Seoun, Tack Fat president, said there’s no mystery about the plant closures—employers are quitting because they are sick of union problems disrupting production.
“I tell you, customers are scared to order” from Cambodian factories, he said, because they can’t be sure the order will be delivered on time. “We have had fewer orders, which means less work for our workers.”
Chea Seoun, an adviser to Senate President Chea Sim, said that in previous years his company has exported between 6 million and 7 million pieces per year.
But in the first six months of 2001, he said, his exports were down 40 percent.
No matter how bad the market gets, he told the lawmakers, he does not plan to lay off any of his 5,850 workers.
Complaints seemed to be in the air at Tack Fat, where workers complained that they could only afford to eat food from street stalls, even though it gave them stomach problems.
“We still need extra work, if possible,” said one.
But Men Sopha, Tack Fat’s director of administration, said workers were eating street food by choice. “We had a canteen and food for them before, but they did not like it, so we allowed them to have their own food.
“They always complained that our food was not delicious.”
The lawmakers found a much better atmosphere at British American Tobacco, which has just opened a gleaming new cigarette factory.
“We found nothing bad here,” said Son Chhay. “We appreciate the way the company uses local [tobacco]…It is a good factory.”
Kong Triv, the Cambodian partner who owns 29 percent of BAT-Cambodia, said BAT is using 72 percent Cambodian tobacco in its cigarettes, and plans to increase that soon to 75 percent.
Since 1999, production has increased 50 percent annually, with new machines able to process six tons of tobacco in two hours. The plant makes about 4.5 tons of cigarettes per year, and within two years is expected to be run solely by Cambodians.
Hor Naun, a CPP parliamentarian, said she was impressed with the plant’s efficiency. “This kind of industry is able to compete with industries in any Asian country,” she said.
Kim San, a Funcinpec lawmaker, praised BAT’s policy of encouraging farmers to plant more tobacco, as well as its goal of planting 1 million trees per year.
He did say, however, that he wants the water treatment facilities at both BAT and Tack Fat checked by inspectors from the Ministry of Environment, to make sure they are not discharging polluted water.
Son Chhay said his committee will summon officials from the ministries of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce to answer questions about why Cambodia’s agro-industry is growing so slowly.
“We want to see the Ministry of Agriculture growing products for the Ministry of Industry to be processing, while the Ministry of Commerce looks for markets,” he said.