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Last Updated: Monday, 30 May, 2005, 21:27 GMT 22:27 UK
Cambodian workers fear new labour law
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Cambodian garment workers
New labour laws could make work tougher for garment workers
No country depends as much on its textile industry as Cambodia, where garments account for 80% of the country's exports.

About a quarter of a million people work in Cambodia's garment factories, and each one of them supports an average of five people with wages that start at $45 (25) per month.

Cambodia's strategy for the survival of its garment industry depends entirely on attracting ethically-minded buyers.

It goes to great lengths to stress the good working conditions and labour relations it has developed, along with its donor partners, in the country's factories.

Conflict brewing

It is a policy that has convinced the clothing giant Gap to increase its orders from Cambodia and sponsor training courses here.

Gap vice president Dan Henkle and Adam Sack, general manager of the Mekong Private Sector Development Factory signing an agreement
Gap and other garment companies favour Cambodia

Other big names like Marks & Spencer, Levi's and H&M are also attracted to buying from factories that the International Labour Organization (ILO) monitors.

Yet as the realities of a world without the protection of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement quota system begin to bite, the pressures on that ethical stance are increasing.

On one side, there are the factory owners who demand changes to the labour law to help them improve their margins.

On the other, the unions protest about what they say is a crackdown on industrial action.

Tougher conditions

Cambodia cannot compete on price against giant producers like China, but its commitment to labour standards has given its garment industry a good chance of surviving the post-quota era.

Major clothing retailers are keen to avoid consumer boycotts, so the working conditions in Cambodian factories are a major attraction.

But for some of the factory owners looking at dwindling order books, such policies as allowing female workers with small children to take breaks for breast-feeding have outlived their usefulness.

The garment manufacturers' association, GMAC, has drawn up a list of suggested changes to the labour law.

They include the closure of workers' creches, cuts in leave entitlement and extra pay for nightshift workers, and restrictions on the recognition of unions.

Good image

GMAC argues that factory owners in neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand do not have such generous provisions for garment workers.

Labour minister Nhep Bunchin
Labour minister Nhep Bunchin is keen not to upset foreign investors

This puts the government in an awkward position.

"Our labour law meets the international standard and it gives us a good image abroad," says the labour minister Nhep Bunchin.

But he has promised to listen to the concerns of the manufacturers.

"We will review the labour law with the ILO, unions, workers, and GMAC. We want the stakeholders to give their input."

The unions are worried that the government is trying to keep the factories open by appeasing the owners.

There have been incidents of police breaking up industrial action - on one occasion using tear gas.

Union officials have also faced court action over disputes.

Workers' rights

The recent launch of a guide to the labour law turned into a heated debate, with union lenders taking to the floor to vent their anger at the labour minister.

Chuon Mom Thol, leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions
Chuon Mom Thol says factory owners must respect workers' rights

One of the speakers was Chuon Mom Thol, the leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions.

He threatened to call a general strike if more union officials were prosecuted.

"The employers are just thinking about finding buyers, rather than working conditions," he said.

"At some of the factories, the armed forces come and point a gun at me, and tell me to go to the table for negotiations."

The International Confederation has also been critical, issuing a report suggesting that workers' rights were being infringed.

And although the ILO monitors working conditions, the head of their Cambodian factories project, Ros Harvey, admits that some things are beyond their control.

"We monitor working conditions up to the factory gate, but there are broader issues in Cambodia that need to be addressed in the context of freedom of association, the guaranteeing genuinely that there is a freedom of association for unions."

How to address the concerns of the factory owners while maintaining Cambodia's reputation as a safe haven for buyers is a balancing act that the government cannot afford to get wrong.

About 30,000 garment factory jobs have gone so far this year.

One way or another, the policy-makers' next move could have serious consequences for the whole country.

Cambodian workers threaten strike
11 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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