Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh on Wednesday lashed out at British actress Minnie Driver, who recently announced she would come to Cambodia to highlight injustices in garment factories.
“As a ‘mini-driver’ can send your golf ball out of bounds, Ms Minnie Driver can be harmful to Cambodia if she really meant it,” Cham Prasidh told an Asian Development Bank workshop on how to empower female garment workers and improve the global competitiveness of the garment industry.
“People who want to improve the working conditions of women in the garment industry in Cambodia should sit…and reflect on ways and means to assist them, and they should refrain from pursuing their anti-globalization goals by trying to harm the poor in the world’s poorest countries,” Cham Prasidh said.
The minister’s bruising rebuke of Driver comes as the country seeks to brand itself as a nation with respect for international labor standards, which some see as the garment industry’s only hope when worldwide garment quotas expire for World Trade Organization members after 2004.
Cambodia’s garment sector accounted for nearly 97 percent of exports in 2002.
Government officials, garment manufacturers and garment workers must make “as much noise as [they] can about the hard work [they] have done, and must continue to do, to uphold labor standards,” Michael Keller, economic and commercial officer at the US Embassy, said last week.
“For the near term, say for the next five years, Cambodia’s garment sector will survive only as long as its reputation as a niche market, as one that respects workers’ rights, survives,” he said.
In 1999, Cambodia became the first country to sign an agreement linking garment quotas with labor standards. The UN’s International Labor Organization, funded by the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia and the Cambodian and US governments, began inspecting factory working conditions in 2001.
The most recently completed ILO report noted limited instances of child labor in Cambodian factories. Discrimination, such as sexual harassment, was not a “major concern,” and inspectors found no evidence of forced labor.
“If Ms Driver thinks it’s important to see the working conditions first-hand, she is free to do that and we are happy to assist her,” Lejo Sibbel, the ILO’s chief technical adviser in Cambodia, said by telephone Wednesday. “What she will find is what everyone can see already through our reports: Problems exist, but the situation is improving.”
More than 200,000 mostly female workers are employed at the country’s nearly 200 factories. They send home an estimated 50 percent of their income to their families in the provinces.
Besides the country’s improving labor standards, the ADB workshop touted market access and competitive labor costs as strengths of the garment industry.
The weaknesses were many: Lack of domestic ownership, a poor legal system and high transportation, bureaucracy and corruption costs, among others.
In his speech, Cham Prasidh said that the success of the industry not only depends on buyers, but also consumers.
“If the consumers do not care about the source of the products, we got problems,” he said.