The 140-page report documents lax government enforcement of labour laws and brand actions that hinder monitoring and compliance

The 140-page report documents lax government enforcement of labour laws and brand actions that hinder monitoring and compliance

Labour rights abuses are still rife in Cambodia’s garment factories, thanks to an inadequate and corrupt inspection system and widespread subcontracting by suppliers, a new report says.

For the report “Work Faster or Get Out: Labor rights abuses in Cambodia’s garment industry”, pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 340 people, including 270 garment workers from 73 factories in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh and nearby provinces.

The group also spoke to union leaders, government officials, labour rights advocates, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), and representatives of international apparel brands.

What emerged, HRW claims in a 140-page report, provides compelling evidence of “lax government enforcement of labour laws and brand actions that hinder monitoring and compliance”.

The issue has been highlighted many times before, particularly in the recent violent suppression of wage protests, as well as repeated instances of garment workers fainting and issues surrounding “burdensome” union registration procedures.

But this report supplies a large amount of detail on “common” labour rights abuses, as well as the failure of government labour inspectors to protect workers’ rights.

Abuses take many forms, including discrimination against pregnant workers, forced overtime and retaliation against those who refuse overtime, and unfair treatment of union workers. Women, who make up about 90% of Cambodia’s garment factories workforce, are a particular concern, the report adds.

The worst conditions, HRW contends, typically occur in small factories which carry out work on a subcontracting basis for larger suppliers with export licences – eventually supplying well-known Western brands including Marks & Spencer, Gap, H&M, Adidas, Armani and Joe Fresh.

These smaller factories, the report says, are “subjected to little or no monitoring and scrutiny”, with at least 14 of the 25 subcontracting factories examined by HRW apparently not being monitored by the Better Factories Cambodia programme.

Further issues include the use of short-term contracts over a long timescale – which restricts the rights of the workers involved – workers being dismissed when they raise concerns about working conditions, wages set lower than the statutory minimum, enforced overtime, no maternity pay for eligible workers and the employment of children (who are hidden when “visitors” call in).

“Cambodia’s labour law is strong in many respects,” the report points out. “But the combination of short-term contracts that make it easier to fire and control workers, poor government labour inspection and enforcement, and aggressive tactics against independent unions make it difficult for workers to assert their rights.”

Cambodia’s inspection regime is failing to address these issues, HRW argues, noting that, out of thousands of inspections carried out between January 2009 and December 2013, only ten fines were imposed on factories for labour regulation violations.

Legal proceedings were issued against only seven factories, the group adds, but official figures show that at least 295 facilities (not all of them garment factories) had violated labour laws in 2013 alone.

Corruption and bribery are commonplace, the report alleges, including the use of an “envelope system” where cash is passed to inspectors in exchange for a favourable report.

As a result, HRW is calling on the Cambodian government to “revamp” its labour inspectorate, making it more transparent and accountable, and removing burdensome union registration procedures.

Apparel brands are also targeted – urged by HRW to publicly disclose the names and addresses of suppliers, to contribute towards ending poor working conditions throughout their supply chain, and to adequately reflect the cost to suppliers of labour, health and safety compliance in their contracts.

“The primary responsibility to improve labour conditions in the Cambodian garment industry rests with the Cambodian government,” the report concludes.

“But a number of other influential actors – brands, Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), and unions – play an important role in ensuring that working conditions in factories adhere to the Labor Law and international standards.

“While paying attention to individual labour rights concerns, the structural issues that underlie a range of labour rights problems – hiring practices, union-busting strategies and unauthorised subcontracting – need urgent attention.”

Feedback from H&M 
Fashion retailer H&M says it has been in close communication with HRW researchers but is still waiting for information about the factories mentioned in the report.

But it agrees the frequent use of short term, fixed duration contracts in the Cambodian garment industry constitutes an illegal breach of workers’ rights “which needs to be addressed by us and other buyers.”

Starting from early this year, the retailer says, “we will have stricter requirements towards our suppliers. We will revise our contract requirements, as a first step towards achieving a change towards 'un-fixed' duration contracts. Suppliers that employ workers over two years on fixed duration contracts will be seen as being in violation of our code of conduct requirements.

“All suppliers with this violation will be required to create a remediation plan for how to transfer workers to fixed duration contracts. Our factory auditors will then follow up on the implementation of these plans.”

H&M also says its supplier list has been publicly available since 2013, and that it takes part in many projects and programmes to strengthen workers’ rights – including customised training piloted in a group of seven Cambodian factories in partnership with SIDA, the ILO and Swedish trade union IF Metall. This will be extended to more factories during 2015.

The retailer also notes that undeclared subcontracting is a serious breach to its Code of Conduct and can lead to termination of the supplier, and says efforts to reduce excessive overtime have yeilded results at a 'role model factory in Cambodia' where overtime has been cut from 14 hours to 8 hours a week.