Earlier this year, around 20,000 garment workers in Cambodia staged a protest demanding a bonus of $50 and threatening walkouts for over three months. The labor unrest began to intensify when the laborers in about 30 factories demanded bonuses. This was proposed by the union as frequent strikes adversely affected the garment industry. They were also fighting for a wage hike. Though the country’s Ministry of Labor had already approved the monthly wages to $95, workers were asking for $160. According to labor research, this is the minimum ‘living wage’ in Cambodia.
Under the free trade agreement by the World Trade Organization, Cambodia enjoys the status of a ‘most favored nation’ with the United States. The country is a popular destination for popular brands like Wal-Mart and Gap, and they dominate a major share of textile exports of around 70 percent. This huge export figure also makes the industry contribute a considerable amount to the economy. Despite this huge dependence, the condition of the laborers (unskilled or otherwise) is pretty bad.
Wal-Mart and Gap have already attracted a lot of public ire for having the worst business practices. In fact, they were given an award at Davos in this regard. Even in Bangladesh, both the companies had refused to sign a pact for improving workers’ conditions.
In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe were producing their own clothes, but today about 93 percent of apparel factories in Cambodia are serving the western countries. Many of the prominent names in the U.S. garment industry like H&M and Gap now have major facilities in Cambodia.
The country has high electricity prices and poor infrastructure facilities that make it, as described by factory owners, not competitive. Comparing these factors, the neighboring country Vietnam is considered a more viable option. These causes force the factory owners to keep the wages of the workers artificially low so that they may retain the big Western names, and not make them shift base to other countries.
Fight for rights
A typical laborer in the textile industry usually works for 12 hours a day and six days a week. Moreover, with bare minimum wages and big responsibilities, spending for even food has become the last priority for these workers. This generally leaves them malnourished and weak. As a result of this, the factories have also seen workers fainting in masses, which have affected the productivity. An organization that works for labor rights, Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) is now working to convince large U.S. companies active in Cambodia to contribute towards free meal programs in the factories.
According to the 31st synthesis report from Better Factories Cambodia (BFC)s released by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Though there have been minor improvements in the wage status of the workers, still about 15 percent of workers do not get minimum wage. There have been other improvements in compliance, such as improvement in the health and safety measures and fundamental rights; a lot of things still need to be done. This slight improvement is probably because of the increasing concerns about the plight of workers in Cambodia.