A recent report issued jointly by the Worker Rights Consortium and Stanford Law School claims that serious deficiencies exist in the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) programme.

This news is no news at all. In fact it is surprising only that it has taken so long for people to recognise that BFC is a total failure.

I would go further and suggest that the only change brought by BFC was to increase the amount of corruption in an already totally corrupt country.

The problem is not poor implementation or insufficient monitoring but rather that the entire programme was - and still is - flawed.

Providing workers with the right to organise was an important and successful first step, but is totally useless in itself.

The good news is that today Cambodia has a flourishing union movement where every Cambodian garment factory has at least one union.

The bad news is that most have four or five unions, each of which spend most of their time squabbling with the others to gain greater control and power by making greater and often irrational demands on management.

As a result, management finds it more cost effective to provide greater benefits to union leaders than to workers.

Today virtually all garment factory owners recognise the need to have unions.

Customers demand unions and, more importantly, industrial professionals have grown to recognise that the alternative to unions is chaos.

It is only reasonable that workers organise into unions to fight for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. However, the unions themselves must follow some rules.

A successful union movement must be based on both a viable structure and system:

  1. Unions must be chartered by some recognised body.
  2. Unions must be transparent, providing audited statements of income and expenditures. For example, while it is only reasonable that union leaders attend conferences and courses of study, travelling to Paris for six months at union expense is too much of a good thing.
  3. Unions and management must have collective bargaining. Someone must be empowered to negotiate for each side. Worker-management discussions must not become multi-partite negotiations where management is forced to negotiate with organised labour while simultaneously disorganised labour negotiates with itself. This is the current situation. We have seen that when agreement becomes impossible, the true negotiations will no longer occur at the table but rather under the table.
  4. Compulsory arbitration must be an agreed alternative when management and their union are unable to agree. Ours is a seasonal business where, in peak periods, management must accede to any demands. However, these short-term gains serve to undermine all future negotiations.
  5. Union leaders must be professional. Workers are by nature short sighted.

Unions must look to the longer term to negotiate multi-year contracts that provide annual increases in wage and benefits.

Everyone agrees that in order to succeed, the system must be open and honest.

It is easy to condemn failure. It is more difficult to accept failure and recognise the need for change.

Regrettably, as the recent report shows, creating an open and honest system is beyond the scope of the ILO.

We must now go on to recognise that we need change. To create a viable labour union movement, we must bring in outside professional assistance.

I suggest that the best organisation to create a viable organised labour movement is organised labour.

Unite Here is the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) garment workers' union. It knows the industry. It has been involved in the Asian industry for many years. It is non-political. It has knowledgeable professionals quite capable of assisting national union movements to represent the garment industry.