The plight of Cambodia’s garment workers
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The plight of Cambodia’s garment workers

Striking workers call on Wal-Mart to take responsibility after supplier skips country owing $200,000 in wages

On Thursday morning garment workers gathered outside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to follow up with the petition they submitted on Januray 18th, 2013 asking the US government to pressure Wal-Mart. They are owed  $200,000 by Kingsland, a Hong Kong-based company that started to operate in Cambodia 10 years ago and worked with Wal-Mart and H&M suppliers.

Yon Sok Lein, one of the Kingsland’s workers, said that there was no feedback from the US Embassy. “We would like Wal-Mart to be held accountable for this situation. It is a big and powerful company. We would also like the owner of the factory to be held accountable but he left the country”. As a garment worker for Kingsland, Yon Sok Lein was working on 1,000 pieces of underwear per day from 7 AM to 4 PM for $120 to $130 per month. There are 400,000 garment workers in Cambodia and 90% of them are women.

A video published on January 20th by the independent Cambodian media Voice of Democracy, shows garment workers outside Kingsland factory protesting for not having been paid and blaming H&M and Wal-Mart. They have been striking since January 3rd, 2013.

The workers have been told since September that they did not have to come to work anymore due to the lack of orders but that they would be paid 50%  of they salary until work would resume in January. But they never received the money before the owners declared bankruptcy and left the country.

According to Wal-Mart, it stopped Kingsland’s products in 2011. H&M in June 2012. However, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) gathered testimonies from worker stating that  H&M alterations and quality checks continued until the first week of September, 2012 and that Walmart production continued until the same week. According to CLEC, the H&M representative admitted it.

A 1997 progressive labor law?

Kingsland is famous for violating legislation and it is not the first time such protests have occurred. In 2008, 16 workers were fired for belonging to a union that was not recognized by the company. Despite attempts to negociate their reintegration, none of them were able to go back to work, suggesting that belonging to an independent union was still problematic at Kingsland. This is in violation of the 1997 labor law.

Cambodia still portrays an “ethical” label to international brands. The country stands out among garment-exporting countries as one where working conditions for factory workers have improved. Since the 1990s, Cambodia has shaped a worker-friendly reputation to be able to compete internationally. In 1997, a labor law was adopted that recognized rights of Cambodian workers, such as ” the minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity”.   Today, the garment industry is the first source of income in the country with more than US$4 billion profit a year. In 1999, the country also agreed to submit an extensive labor inspection program that would be coordinated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 2005, it became a full member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Argued responsibilities?

Interviewed earlier this month by The Cambodia Daily, Nick Rudikoff, global affairs coordinator of Warehouse Workers United (WWU), a U.S.-based union representing 5.5 million workers in different sectors, said that “Kingsland’s failure to inform the workers’ of their situation is an example of Wal-Mart not making sure members of its supply chain treat workers in a fair manner”.

Legally the factory owners are responsible for the workers’ severance pay and working conditions. But as Dave Welsh, the head of the American Centre for International Labor Solidarity, told Voice of Democracy last August “it really is the brands putting the squeeze around the world on the industry. But the industry doesn’t mind, because the people who suffer are not the owners, the people who suffer are the workers.”

The International Labour Organization (ILO) established the “Better Factories Cambodia” program (ILO-BFC) to monitor the compliance to the 1999 US – Cambodia bilateral trade agreement, generating reports about working conditions in Cambodian factories. According to the latest one, there is a need  for a new industry-wide agreement as “the number of strikes over the reporting period is twice as many for the same reporting period [a year before]”.  The reports records 27 strikes and 16 mass faintings between November 2011 and June 2012. This represents more than 2,000 women fainting.