NGO: Actress’ Visit Targets Western Firms

Oxfam said Monday that Bri­t­ish actress Minnie Driver’s planned visit to garment factories here would show how “Western companies’ cut-throat competition” leads to poor working conditions in developing countries.

“We know the garment industry is crucial for Cambodia’s economy,” Oxfam Great Britain said in a statement from its regional office in Bangkok. “We ap­plaud, and sup­­­port, the innovative work the Cam­­bodian government is doing with partners—including the In­ter­­national Labor Organiza­tion—to develop the best possible conditions for workers in the garment industry.

“The problem is that foreign companies’ buying practices undermine these efforts by pushing garment factories in developing countries to continually cut costs,” the statement said.

Last week, Minister of Com­merce Cham Prasidh said Driver “can be harmful to Cambodia” and that those who want to im­prove the working conditions of female gar­ment workers “should refrain from pursuing their anti-globalization goals by trying to harm the poor in the world’s poorest countries.”

Government officials and garment industry leaders are trying to brand the industry, which ac­count­ed for nearly 97 percent of the country’s exports in 2002, as one with respect for international labor standards. When worldwide garment quotas expire for World Trade Organization members after 2004, some think the industry’s survival will correlate directly with how well they have done that.

Responding to Oxfam’s statement, Van David, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Man­ufacturers Association in Cambo­dia, said Monday that international buyers are always looking for cheaper prices.

“This is a reality of the business world,” he said. “The real ques­tion is: Why Cambodia? If you want to talk about sweatshops, there are many neighboring countries where that is a concern.”

Alex Renton, an Oxfam Great Britain representative in Bang­kok, said by e-mail Monday that as part of Oxfam’s global “Make Trade Fair” campaign, the international organization is studying working conditions in Thailand and China as well as Cambodia.

He added that Oxfam is still researching which multinational com­panies contribute to poor work­ing conditions and that Ox­fam wants to highlight “macro changes” caused by the WTO and the end of worldwide garment quotas for WTO members.

“We would certainly plan to introduce Minnie Driver to Cam­bo­­dian officials so she can learn their point of view,” Renton said. “Essentially, we [and she] are on the same side as the Cambodian government—we want to see investment [in] Cambodia, and we want to see decent pay and conditions for Cambodian workers.”

Van David said Driver, who has previously campaigned for Oxfam, is welcome to visit any GMAC-mem­ber factories and that the in­dustry does not fear her visit be­cause “we have nothing to hide.”

“It’s a totally transparent system,” he said. “There is no point in worrying about someone making a publicity stunt.”

The most recent ILO report released in October found that payment of wages and “the nature and frequency” of overtime work are the garment industry’s most widespread problems. The report found limited instances of child labor and discrimination, and no evidence of forced labor.

Lejo Sibbel, the ILO’s chief technical adviser in Cambodia, said Monday that the ILO sent Driver a letter through her agent on Friday “to inform Ms Driver of our efforts to improve working con­ditions.” The ILO has not yet received a response from Driver.

Oxfam said in its statement that Driver’s visit was not yet finalized.

“The Minnie Driver visit was still in the early stages of planning and was not expected to happen before next year,” Renton said. “We had not got beyond establishing her positive interest and beginning to discuss ideas…. We were just beginning to talk about who she might speak to and where.”

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