Order Pushes Monitoring For Factories

All Parties Happy With Progress
Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh has issued a directive ordering all garment factories exporting to the US to register with the International Labor Organization, a move the ILO said indicates the government’s dedication to a healthy garment sector.

Since the subdecree was issued at the end of March, at least 160 of the 200 garment factories in Cambodia have registered with the ILO as the world body moves forward with a monitoring and labor conditions improvement program, an official said Monday.

“I think everyone gains from it,” said Khek Ravy, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce.

The program will be complimentary to the government’s own inspection efforts and will “up­grade the capacity to implement the labor law,” he said.

The ILO is in the process of training an eight-person team of factory inspectors, said Lejo Sibbel, the head of the ILO’s Garment Sector Working Con­ditions Improvement Project, which began in January at the request of the government.

The project aims to improve labor conditions using the leverage of a trade agreement with the US that ties possible quota bonuses for garment exports to labor conditions. Each year, Cambodia is entitled to a 14 percent increase in the amount it can export, provided it shows adherence to national and international labor codes.

“Only ILO registered garment factories would be eligible to use allocated export quotas and/or to buy export quotas through official bidding for export of textiles and textile products to the United States of America,” according to the directive. Factories that don’t register will be disqualified from exporting to the US, it says.

The quota system is used by the US, the Cambodian garment industry’s largest market, to control the amount of exports coming in from foreign countries. The quota system for Cambodia—given as a percentage of imports on certain textile and garment projects—is directly tied to working conditions in the country and is unique to Cambodia.

The ILO’s monitoring team will provide an independent body that will improve factory conditions, said Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The Free Trade Union, with some 8,000 members, is the most active union, responsible for a majority of the strikes against poor working conditions and unfair firing practices at factories that have had some success in improving the lot of workers.

Garments are by far the country’s largest export; the sector employs around 120,000 workers. However, the industry also faces criticism from workers and unions that the labor laws are not followed: that pay is low, overtime high and factory conditions not always satisfactory.

The garment industry has been shaken by frequent protests over the past year. Massive strikes in June led to a $5 pay increase for workers, setting a new minimum wage of $45 per month. But garment factory owners warn too much turbulence in the sector will scare away potential investors.

With a new monitoring team in place, those strikes are likely to decrease, said Chea Vichea, who is also on the ILO project’s advisory committee.

“We are very happy with the project,” he said. “If [the monitors] find a mistake, they can change it.”

And because the project is linked to the US quota system, more pressure will be on the factories to adhere to the law, he said.

Ray Chew, an executive member of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia and a member of the ILO’s project advisory committee, said the program was “on track.”

Tighter monitoring of the labor laws, reflected by a checklist that will be carried by monitors, were not likely to upset the flow of investment in the garment sector, he said.

“We are accustomed to being inspected by buyers overseas,” he said. “It is just a part of the routine.”

GMAC contributed $200,000 to the project, budgeted for $1.4 million for three years. The US Department of Labor is pitching in $1 million, with the Cambodian government adding the final $200,000.

The ILO’s labor project is aimed at improving factory and working conditions under the guidelines of the Geneva-based ILO, and by using the existing labor laws of Cambodia, Sibbel said.

There are eight ILO conventions dealing with “free association, non-discrimination, forced labor and child labor” that must be followed, Sibbel said.

The eight full-time labor monitors currently in training were culled earlier in the year from the government, unions, factories and human rights agencies, Sibbel said.

“So we have a mixture of people with differing backgrounds,” he said. “Together, they should know it all.”

The teams—which will run scheduled and unscheduled inspections of registered factories—are being trained in basic labor law, interviewing techniques, and the use of inspection equipment that measures, for example, the amount of dust, light or heat in a factory, Sibbel said.

The monitoring teams are expected to be up and running by the beginning of June, he said. After that they will start inspecting registered factories. Their findings will be publicized in a quarterly report to be published by the ILO.



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