A visiting US labor official on Wednesday predicted stronger trade relations with Cambodia’s garment industry, lauding the country for improved working conditions despite union complaints recently highlighted by violent strikes.
This week’s US labor review will determine the makeup of a bilateral textile agreement that has helped Cambodia’s once-struggling garment sector grow into a billion-dollar industry, comprising 36 percent of the economy. The agreement expires in 2005.
Limited incidents of forced or child labor, and Cambodia’s growing reputation for being a country that respects labor rights, should help secure future US buyers and international competitiveness, said Robert Hagen, the US State Department’s International Labor Office director.
“I think increasingly in this industry, and in other industries, buyers are unwilling to purchase from producers who they believe are producing under sweatshop conditions,” Hagen said at a news conference Wednesday at the Hotel Le Royal.
“And to the extent that Cambodia can market itself as a country where garments are produced in factories where workers have rights and are treated with dignity, this will increase the value of Cambodian production.”
Hagen will deliver his assessment to Washington, where US lawmakers will calculate a reward to increase trade opportunities under an export quota. The garment bonus—currently standing at 12 percent of a possible 18 percent—is directly related to working conditions. Although US delegates are consulting unions, the government and manufacturers, their assessment will be based largely on reports published by the International Labor Organization, Hagen said. Cambodia is the only country in the world to undergo ILO monitoring.
A June ILO report identified nine child labor cases in three of 60 reviewed factories—minor offenses compared with the pervasiveness of incorrectly paid wages throughout the industry, he said.
Unions earlier this week requested that a blanket increase in the minimum wage be a requirement for next year’s textile deal. Hagen did not indicate whether he endorsed the proposal. “We have used the agreement…to try to persuade the government that it was in its own interest to improve respect for the Cambodian labor law and international standards. I think the agreement has reached results,” he said.
In May, US State Department labor inspector George White strongly advised the government to respect workers’ rights to organize, which ILO reports indicate are not fully upheld.
The Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Cambodian Coalition of Democratic Workers Union last week stated that few improvements have been made in this field.
A strike this week at the Won Rex (Cambodia) garment factory over workers’ rights to fair representative elections highlighted the systemic problem of government- or factory-sponsored unions and gangs, such as the Pagoda Boys, which intimidate workers, coalition officials said.
Hagen gave little weight to the problem of factory—or government-sponsored—intimidation, instead heralding a newly formed Arbitration Council as the hope for solving collective disputes in the future.
The US is due to announce the size of Cambodia’s quota bonus in December.