UK Urged to Help Improve Cambodia’s Factories

A group of unions in the U.K. is urging its government to make sure British brands sourcing clothes from Cambodian factories respect their workers’ rights, and to ask the European Union to negotiate a deal with the Cambodian government to improve factory conditions.

In a July 22 letter released last week, the Trade Union Congress urges U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable to raise the “serious violations of freedom of association taking place in Cambodia” in talks with U.K. brands buying from Cambodia.

The Congress, with 54 affiliated unions representing more than 6 million workers, also requests that the business secretary ask the E.U. to replicate in Cambodia the Sustainability Compact it signed with Bangladesh last year.

With the help of duty-free access to European markets, Cambodia exported $1.14 billion worth of garments to the E.U. during the first six months of the year, a 32 percent rise year-on-year, leading the way to an overall jump in garment exports over the first half of 2013.

“As a condition for continued trade preferences, the E.U. has included important provisions that require beneficiaries to guarantee the exercise of fundamental labor rights in law and in practice,” the unions say. “However, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has for several years criticized Cambodia for its continued failure to respect and promote freedom of association.”

“If the labor provisions of trade preference schemes are to be a tool for raising labor standards and combating income inequality, the E.U. must take enforcement seriously,” it adds, endorsing proposals by other union federations for a Bangladesh-style compact in Cambodia.

“We support this proposal, as the dire situation in Cambodia undoubtedly merits such action,” the letter says.

The E.U. negotiated its Sustainability Compact with the Bangladeshi government and the ILO in mid-2013 in the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,000 workers. The deal committed the government to a series of reforms with set deadlines, including changes to the Labor Law to strengthen freedom of association rights, improve building safety and hire more inspectors to monitor factories.

A spokesperson for Mr. Cable’s office said the issues raised in the letter were a matter for the U.K. government’s Department for International Development, which would be forwarded a copy.

ILO country director Maurizio Bussi said the conditions that led to a compact in Bangladesh were very different from those in Cambodia.

“There is no such conversation in Cambodia [for a compact] because the context is totally different,” said Mr. Bussi, who declined to comment on the proposal for a compact here.

Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, a local NGO, agreed that a compact in Cambodia would naturally focus on some different problems but still believed it would help to have one here.

“The precedent set in Bangladesh would be a good model here,” Mr. Tola said. “Cambodia is a little bit better than Bangladesh regarding the buildings …but we see quite a lot of mass faintings, violent crackdowns by security forces on workers and the use of short-term contracts.”

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