Why Are Many Garment Workers in Cambodia Getting a Raw Deal?

A new report from Human Rights Watch claims that the Cambodian government is failing to protect garment workers, who produce wares for international apparel brands, from serious labor rights abuses.

The 140-page report, titled Work Faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry, documents government negligence in enforcing labor laws. It also details how the factories’ companies purposely hinder compliance and proper monitoring.

HRW discovered that many factories were guilty of issuing unlawful short-term contracts to workers so that they could avoid paying maternity and other benefits. The short-term contracts also allow the employer to have control or intimidate workers who may ask for their lawful rights. The report says that apparel brands have not taken appropriate steps to end the illegal short-term contracts in supplier factories.

The discovery of control and intimidation violations of pregnant workers is particularly alarming because women in Cambodia make up 90 percent of the country’s 700,000 estimated garment workers, according to the Ministry of Industry and Handicraft.

HRW numbers

Cambodia has 1,200 garment factories providing goods to classy brands such as Adidas, Armani, Gap, H&M, Joe Fresh, and Marks and Spencer.  Over 200 international apparel brands source from Cambodia and the allegations against the source factories are startling.

“Women workers from 30 factories cited specific abuses, including refusing to hire, renew short-term contracts, or provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers, making it difficult for them to work in factories,” said a HRW media release.

Workers from some factories found it difficult to take medically approved sick leave.

According to Cambodia’s Labor Ministry, between 2009 and 2013, officials imposed fines on only 10 factories, with legal action being taken against only 7 factories (all in 2011). The number of fines in 2014 was 25, which is still quite low considering the fact that Cambodia has 1,200 factories and a comprehensive pattern of workers rights violations.

HRW says that significant reforms are still needed on both the brand and government sides to improve the abysmal track record outlined in this report.

The report’s findings are based on interviews with over 340 people, including 270 workers from over 70 factories, as well as union leaders, government representatives, and labor rights advocates.

Cambodia’s garment industry is dominated by foreign investment from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea. It is critical to the country’s economy and women’s livelihoods. See the above video for more information.

Women in the sewing division of a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Women constitute about 90 percent of the workforce in Cambodia’s garment industry. (Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)

Women in the sewing division of a factory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Women constitute about 90 percent of the workforce in Cambodia’s garment industry. (Image: Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch)


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