Worst Factories Named, But Will They Change?

At the end of December, Best Tan Garment Ltd. moved its operations from a dilapidated, now-abandoned property in Chamkar Mon district to new premises in Meanchey district.

But the move has not improved working conditions for the factory’s 300 to 400 workers, who make clothes for the Spanish brand Pull & Bear.

Workers board a remorque after their shift at the Best Tan garment factory in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa)
Workers board a remorque after their shift at the Best Tan garment factory in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa)

In fact, workers say, the conditions inside the factory, which this week ranked lowest in a new report identifying companies that are failing to meet industry standards, have gotten worse.

“The old location was much larger than this one and much cooler. Now, it is incredibly hot inside and there are not many fans,” said 28-year-old Ly Rany as she left the factory for her lunch break.

More than a dozen of her co-workers agreed, many of them emerging with wet towels over their heads as they complained that the hot season was sending temperatures soaring inside the cramped factory.

Im Sokha, 30, said her colleagues were bringing fans from their rental properties to make conditions more bearable.

On Monday, the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia program (BFC) launched the Transparency Database. The initiative seeks to name companies that persistently fail to comply with Cambodian labor law and international standards, encouraging factory owners to improve conditions for workers.

The database marks the first time that BFC has made its reports public since 2005, and comes after months of intense criticism over the program’s lack of transparency.

In BFC’s initial report of 61 factories—out of about 500 it monitors—Best Tan Garment Ltd. came bottom among ten factories ranked as the “lowest compliance” category, recording 23 non-compliance issues out of 52 points evaluated. The report listed numerous safety issues at the factory as well as a litany of Labor Law violations regarding worker’s wages, bonuses and leave.

The company may have moved from the old building where BFC conducted its report in August 2013, but being publicly named as one of the least compliant factories does not seem to have had an effect on working conditions there.

And the factory may be even worse-performing than the report suggests.

Although BFC recorded no discrimination against workers based on union membership and said workers were free to form and join unions freely without interference from management, employees Thursday were unanimous that this was not the case.

Orn Samith, 33, said that management has threatened to fire workers if they speak up about the poor working conditions at the factory.

“We don’t dare to protest because we are afraid we will lose our job,” he said.

Workers said there has been a spate of firings at the factory recently, but said they didn’t know why.

Oum Thorn, 33, said that all the workers wanted a union and she hoped the factory owners would have a change of heart.

“We want to have a union or even a workers’ representative appointed to defend our interests, so we ask the factory to please allow us to form a union,” she said.

Sok Thida, manager of Best Tan Garment Ltd., declined to comment.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said that he believes that the BFC’s new transparent monitoring is an encouraging step that could eventually lead to an improvement in conditions.

But at smaller factories like Best Tan, there may be little impact from BFC’s reporting, he said.

Joel Preston, a consultant for the Community Legal Education Center, said that BFC’s publishing of monitoring results is unquestionably positive. But without the power to enforce regulations, factories without pressure from big-name buyers have no incentive to improve.

“If BFC had access to enforcement powers to hold the factories it names accountable and if labor laws were properly enforced it would make a difference, but there is a complete lack of enforcement by the government,” he said.

“The government is the big culprit,” he said.

Van Sou Ieng, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said Thursday that the problem was that the original mandate of the BFC program, which was to help remedy and improve factories in order to increase the country’s exports, had changed.

“Factories are improving all the time. It is a matter of how you teach them,” he said, adding that BFC’s public naming and shaming of factories was akin to a criminal investigation and not conducive to achieving better practices.

“If a good doctor is giving good advice in order to remedy a patient, everyone will go to see the doctor because everyone wants to get better. But if you are being labeled a criminal, do you want the police to come into your home every day looking for evidence to prove you are a bad person?”

Mr. Sou Ieng added that making the program non-compulsory, as it is in other countries in the region, would make it work better.

“If a program is good, you don’t need to force people to go.”

Jill Tucker, chief technical adviser at BFC, declined to comment.

Dave Welsh, country director of the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights organization, said that making the BFC program transparent was a modest first step, but an important move that has already had success in the bigger factories.

But whether it will have a trickle-down effect remains to be seen.

“This is a new tactic and only time will tell, but I suspect factories named in these reports, who were previously guaranteed anonymity, will be inclined to fix their problems.”

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