Dozens of inmates at Preah Sihanouk Provincial Prison have been employed as workers for a company that exports shoes overseas, including to consumers in Japan, the US and Canada, as part of a pilot program inside the prison.
Kuy Bunsorn, general director for the general department of prisons, said the Preah Sihanouk Prison program—set up in partnership with a Taiwanese company called New Star Shoes—was a legal vocational program.
“It is not an illegal activity. It’s just a pilot project by a company from mainland China that hires our inmates to give them training and skills,” he said, adding that prisoners receive 70 percent of the total income generated.
Mr Bunsorn directed questions about the finances of the project to Preah Sihanouk’s prison chief, who said the prison workers could earn between $25 and $50 per month.
Shipping records obtained yesterday show that New Star Shoes—which has offices in Sihanoukville, China, and Taiwan—has exported products from Cambodia to ShoeMax, a Canada-based company with US distribution.
Prison officials said the shoes made at the prison were only exported to Japan.
The prison shoes program appears, however, to contravene a July letter from Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) in which he asked the association to ensure its members do not engage in prison labor.
In August 2010, a similar garment-making program was halted at the behest of the Ministry of Commerce and the International Labor Organization over fears that piecework subcontracted to prisoners was being sold back up the supply chain.
Prison regulations, meanwhile, forbid the use of prison labor for private benefit.
Mr Prasidh said yesterday he was “not aware of this pilot program” and needed to investigate. He also noted that footwear does not yet fall under the Better Factories Cambodia framework, under which the regulations on adherence to ILO conventions were written.
GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo also said he hadn’t heard of the program but pointed out that the Commerce Ministry’s previous requests to halt prison labor precluded footwear. He said footwear manufacturers had only just started to join GMAC and generally have a lower standard of concern regarding such practices as prison labor.
“If it’s meant for export by one of our members, it would definitely be frowned upon, to put it mildly,” he said. “It’s not in violation of any law per se, it’s just that buyers do not like it. It affects the reputation and image.”
Both Canada and the US have laws banning the import of goods made by prisoners, though Mr Loo stressed there was no reason to believe the shoes created by prisoners had in fact been exported to those countries.
Representatives of New Star could not be reached for comment.
Pech Veasna, chief of Preah Sihanouk Provincial Prison, said he believed the shoes were bound solely for Japan, which has no such law.
“From my knowledge, the shoes with the brand name New Star are made here for export to Japan,” he said.
Mr Veasna also stressed the voluntary nature of the shoe production program.
“Any prisoner who wants to learn can join us. Anyone who doesn’t can freely reject. It is not a forced policy,” Mr Veasna added.
“Prisoners are not suffering labor exploitation as they are being paid as much as ordinary garment workers,” he said, noting that those who sign on for the program get additional perks, including extra food and dessert, to keep their energy levels up while sewing.
“It’s provided them great benefits, not negative impact,” he added.
But human rights workers yesterday criticized the program, saying it was in violation of ILO conventions that bar the use of forced labor and potentially damaging to Cambodia’s international trade relations.
“Is it truly voluntary?” asked Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, which is investigating a number of prison garment sub-contracting programs.
“You know what the conditions are like in these prisons in terms of overcrowding, lack of food, toiletries, while basic amenities such as medical care are all largely denied. There’s a systemization of corruption where prisoners have to pay for everything,” Mr Robertson said.
Pointing to Article 71 in the new prison law, which is expected to be rubber-stamped by the Senate this week, Mr Robertson noted that this sub-contracting of prison labor will likely soon be legal.
“Allowing unscrupulous firms to come in and do this legally endangers the entire sector,” he added.