Cambodian workers at a rally earlier this year calling for a monthly wage of $160 (Photo credit: LICHADO)

Cambodian workers at a rally earlier this year calling for a monthly wage of $160 (Photo credit: LICHADO)

Western brands and retailers are “deeply implicated” in the current unrest gripping the Cambodian apparel sector – but they can also be part of the solution, says a new report.

“Crackdown in Cambodia: Workers Seeking Higher Wages Meet Violent Repression” is an analysis by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) of the recent deaths and arrests of striking workers in Phnom Penh, the underlying causes and what action, in the view of the WRC, should be taken now.

Its publication follows a violent crackdown on demonstrations in the Cambodian capital on 2 and 3 January this year, when military police fired on protesters, killing at least four people and wounding 38 more.

According to the WRC, the workers affected were employed at factories supplying companies including Walmart, Hudson's Bay, Sears, Abercrombie and Fitch, Nike, Russell, Adidas, Puma, Uniqlo, HanesBrands, Primark and Marks & Spencer.

The strikes and demonstrations came as workers demanded a doubling of the minimum wage from US$80 to $160, with the Cambodian government raising it to only $100 with effect from February.

This, the WRC contends, leaves workers well short of the wage they need to meet their basic needs, with the organisation linking resultant malnutrition to a series of mass faintings in Cambodian garment factories in recent months.

The WRC also claims that, since the violence in January, repression of workers has “continued with little respite”, with public gatherings banned and 21 workers arrested during the protests still in custody.

Any sign of worker protest is put down by security forces, it alleges, while the Cambodian Ministry of Labor blocks the formation of unions by refusing to register them.

“Deeply implicated”
While the Cambodian government bears the most direct responsibility for the situation, the WRC says, it also points the finger at factory owners and the US and European apparel companies who buy their wares – which, it says, are “deeply implicated”.

“Neither the massive protests by workers in December nor the violent repression by security forces in January likely would have occurred had not Cambodian factory owners feared that by acceding to workers’ wage demands they would render themselves unable to meet pricing requirements of Western brands and retailers,” the report argues.

“The price squeeze confronting Cambodian garment factory owners – between the demands of brands and retailers for cheap apparel and the demands of garment workers for livable wages – explains not only why the industry has so aggressively opposed a significant increase in the minimum, but also why, since the mass protests erupted, industry leaders have tended to support escalation and confrontation over a negotiated settlement between labour and management.”

According to the WRC report, 16 US university licensees have confirmed that they produce collegiate apparel in Cambodia, using a total of 20 factories in the country in 2013.

Steps to tackle the situation
Now the organisation is calling on those licensees – as well as other brands and retailers sourcing apparel from Cambodia – to agree to take a series of steps to tackle the situation.

These include making sure that supplier factories do not take retaliatory action against their workers for their role in the unrest, where this has not broken any internationally recognised law, and that they reinstate anyone sacked as a result of the protests.

Companies should also “help end the Cambodian government’s repression of worker rights” by telling officials that those detained should be released immediately, the WRC says.

And they should also call on the Cambodian government to take action against those responsible for the “excessive force” used against protesters, as well as paying compensation to victims.

The WRC further calls on companies to meet and negotiate with representatives of Cambodian garment workers, agreeing to require supplier factories to pay a new minimum wage of $160 per month, adjusting pricing requirements to take account of this and maintaining business with factories agreeing to the new wage for at least the next two years.

“Both the GMAC [Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia] and the Cambodian government have expressed concern that significant increases in wages for garment workers will cause brands and retailers to shift orders to other countries,” the WRC report says.

“If university licensees and other brands and retailers make firm commitments not only to require their supplier factories to meaningfully increase wages, but also to factor such an increase into the prices they pay for garments, university licensees and other brands and retailers can play a vital role in resolving the current crisis.”