US Urges Better Garment Sector Labor Relations

Cambodia is fast running out of time to prove that its garment sector is sound, productive and ethical, which is essential if the industry is to remain competitive, US Am­­bas­sador Joseph Mussomeli said Tuesday.

Safeguards on Chinese textile ex­ports to the US are due to ex­pire in 11 months, while Viet­nam has become Cambodia’s lar­gest competitor for clothing ex­ports, he reminded an industrial re­lations conference in Phnom Penh.

The garment industry is Cam­bodia’s largest source of income and provides 80 percent of Cam­bodia’s foreign exchange earnings.

With fourth-quarter garment exports down 46 percent in 2007, participants at the conference extolled the virtues of ensuring that Cambodian garment workers are well treated and that their factories are reliably profitable.

But they said there is already cause for genuine concern.

“Cambodia has just 336 days to prove to garment buyers and factory owners that Cambodia’s labor-management relations are strong and stable,” Mussomeli said. “My ad­vice to you is to act fast.”

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturer’s As­socia­tion of Cambodia, said following the conference that time is in fact even tighter.

“We actually have less time than this, because if we don’t do anything factories will start moving out around the second half of this year,” he said.

Cambodia exported $380 million worth of clothing in the last quar­ter of 2007, a drop of $320 million over the same period in 2006, he said.

Most important to progress is con­vincing trade unions and em­ployers that collective bargaining agreements, which formalize the means of resolving labor disputes, will be actively enforced by the gov­ernment, Loo said.

Meanwhile, concerns about illegal strikes are causing some factories to operate at reduced capacity to allow them to reschedule deliveries in the event of work stoppages, he added.

However, acting Labor Minister Othsman Hassan told the conference it was not yet time to despair.

Ministry figures indicate the number of workdays lost to strikes declined 14 percent to 294,000 between 2006 and 2007.

“As you are all aware, the situation of labor rights now is very tense. But it is not a situation that leads us to hopelessness,” he said.

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