Study: Female Leaders Would Boost Garment Worker Conditions

Having more female labor leaders in Cambodia’s $6 billion garment industry would lead to better conditions for all workers and fewer human rights abuses, but they face many obstacles in acquiring power in trade unions, according to a new academic study.

Women make up a majority of the more than 600,000 workers employed by the garment industry, a pillar of the country’s economy, but relatively few are leaders in the unions, meaning they have little role in negotiations or decision-making more broadly.

Women work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh in August. (Charles Fox)
Women work at a garment factory in Phnom Penh in August. (Charles Fox)

Yaing Sophorn, who heads the independent Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, cited family pressure, low self-esteem and domestic responsibilities as some of the challenges deterring women from pursuing leadership roles.

No less important is the lack of support they receive from male colleagues, she said.

“Men vote only for men to be trade union leaders or in leadership positions at workplaces or at the national level,” Ms. Sophorn said. “Unfortunately, many women at the sub-national level do not get support and encouragement from national male leaders.”

One of only a handful of national-level women union leaders, Ms. Sophorn said her attempts to address women’s concerns were frequently challenged by male colleagues and government officials.

“For example, I very often raise the issue of women garment workers’ monthly spending on sanitary items, to add the expense to the list for negotiation with employers, but many men who are trade union leaders deny adding it,” she said.

Gender-balanced representation at all levels would contribute to greater equality and better working conditions for men and women, according to Fabiana Pereira, who studied the sector’s leadership for her master’s thesis—published last week—in international human rights law and labor rights at Sweden’s Lund University.

“In Cambodia the labour movement is composed by women but led by men,” she writes in her thesis. “Workers can only be effectively represented if all groups and their interests are adequately taken into account in the decision making process,” she writes.

“Accordingly, women’s representation in trade union membership and leadership is necessary.”

Her study also found employers believed women were less likely to demand their rights and that the government’s efforts to safeguard workers’ rights via legislation were thwarted by poor law enforcement and corrupt factory inspection officials.

The government, for its part, established a working group in 2008 to promote female leadership and women’s rights in the workplace, said Heng Sour, a spokesman for the Labor Ministry.

Mr. Sour said the group was “working hard to promote the rights of female workers,” though he did not provide details.

“Most female workers know their rights,” he said. “You can go and ask female workers how they are satisfied with the current status.”

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