Linking the Worst Factories With the Labels

The building that housed USA Fully Field Garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district stands empty now. The grounds are littered with garbage and boxes full of dusty brand labels that were stitched onto clothes by almost 400 workers before the factory owner fled in December and work ceased.

Discarded amid piles of shredded cloth were labels from Joe Fresh, “Canada’s number one apparel brand,” European fashion house Vero Modo, and Italian sportswear label Givova, which supplies the uniforms for a host of professional football teams as well as Malta’s national team.

The Chinese-owned USA Fully Field was listed as one of the 10 least compliant factories in the Transparency Database published by the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program. The database, launched last month and set to expand throughout the year, exposed a raft of labor law violations within the industry relating to work safety, staff payments and unfair dismissals.

BFC’s goal with the database is to name and shame factories that persistently flout the Cambodian labor law and international standards, pressuring owners to improve working conditions.

But BFC’s list fails to link factories with their international buyers—who profit heavily from the garment factory supply chain—limiting its effectiveness in im­proving workers’ lives, according to industry experts.

Directly across the road from the USA Fully Field complex, another factory on the BFC’s least compliant list, Phong Wan Enterprise Co. Ltd, has also been abandoned.

Dozens of labels belonging to Dunnes Stores, a popular clothing chain in the U.K. and Ireland, lay scattered in the dirt alongside the shuttered factory.

The Chinese owner shut down the small factory two weeks ago amid discontent from about 200 workers who complained of unbearable working conditions and salaries below the minimum wage of $100 per month, according to a security guard at the property, who asked to remain anonymous.

Chinese-owned Ever Glory (Cambodia) Garment Manu­facturing in Pur Senchey district, also among the BFC’s worst performing factories, remains operational with between 400 to 500 employees. Working conditions, however, are not noticeably improving, according to workers who provided a number of name brand tags from clothes being made in the factory.

The labels were from women’s clothing line Trafaluc by Zara, the flagship brand of the world’s largest apparel company, Inditex; Canadian workwear company Mark’s “Denver Hayes” jeans; and children’s clothing brand Palomino by European retailer C&A.

Lim Oeun, 32, who has worked at the factory for about six years, complained of stifling hot temperatures and said that managers often withheld bonuses and food stipends, while unionizing was strictly prohibited.

“The factory owner does not allow us to create a union be­cause he doesn’t want interruptions in production and fears unions will encourage unsatisfied workers to protest,” she said.

At another factory low on the BFC database, Lixing Knitting Factory Co. Ltd. in Meanchey district, workers provided reporters with labels bearing the logo Bluezoo—the children’s clothing brand of U.K. retail chain Debenhams.

Company accountant Han Sun admitted that conditions inside the small factory were substandard.

“I recognize that work conditions in this factory may be poor and that factory standards are not being reached because the building is too small,” he said.

The least compliant factory on the list, Best Tan Garment Ltd. in Meanchey district, was found last month to produce clothes for Spanish brand Pull & Bear, also owned by Inditex.

Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights organization, is currently seeking proper severance payment for about 300 former employees of USA Fully Field Garment factory, who were left jobless when the indebted owner of the factory suddenly shut it down.

He said that the ILO has taken an important first step in shaming poor-performing factories, but expanding BFC’s database to put pressure on brands must be next.

“There is an enormous gap between what brands say on their websites and in company codes of conduct and what they do on the ground, so the more the brands can be linked [to offending factories] the better,” Mr. Welsh said.

“Brands need to be invested in this process because it is a legal fiction that they aren’t the owners as they are the biggest beneficiaries,” he said.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturer’s Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents around 450 garment and footwear factories, also noted a disconnect between retailers’ stated social commitments and the reality of their production chain. Naming and shaming factories alone will not bridge the gap, he said.

“[GMAC has] requested [naming brands] many times. The BFC cannot achieve its objective in applying external pressure to instill change in the factory without naming the buyers, because the party that has the most leverage is of course the buyer,” Mr. Loo said.

“To disclose one side of the story does not have any effect.”

BFC’s chief technical adviser, Jill Tucker, said that the ILO is not opposed to publishing the names of brands at factories and is discussing the possibility with GMAC.

“Currently, factories don’t need to tell us what brands they produce. Therefore, we know only about the 45 [brands] that are registered [with BFC], but there are hundreds of brands,” Ms. Tucker said.

“If the government changes our mandate or if we work with GMAC and others to get an accurate list of brands at the factories than we can consider disclosing them, but it has to be done in an evenhanded way,” she added.

None of the brands responded to requests for comment.

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