Factories participating in Better Factories Cambodia are preferred suppliers

Factories participating in Better Factories Cambodia are preferred suppliers

First results of a baseline survey into the benefits of an initiative intended to boost Cambodia garment factory competitiveness and working conditions suggest it has helped generate additional orders – but that excessive overtime and sexual harassment remain ongoing concerns.

The findings are revealed by an independent assessment of 73 factories participating in the Better Factories Cambodia programme, which surveyed over 1,500 workers and 50 managers.

Most apparel factories enrolled in BFC are engaged in cut-make- pack/trim and sample making operations, with around 70% of general managers indicating their firms are preferred suppliers in global supply chains and sell products to customers outside Cambodia.

Additionally, 40% of managers told the survey that joining BFC helped their factories obtain additional orders or better contract terms. And 20% of respondents indicated customers have stopped social auditing since their factory joined the programme.

The biggest business challenges are poor production efficiencies, low skills and union activity

However, they suggest the biggest business challenges are poor production efficiencies, low skills of current workers and union activity. And less than half of managers have implemented (or are currently implementing) new training programmes for workers or changes to their pay packages.

Worker responses verify this, with fewer than one-fifth of workers reporting an induction or refresher training in health and safety procedures or new skills – although only 3% of respondents said they have been injured in the last six months.

The research by Tufts University also found that over a quarter of respondents (28%) said they "rarely" or "never" use safety equipment, and almost 16% reported not being provided with it at all.

The survey posed questions to workers to attempt to understand the health impacts of their working environment. For example, few workers (around 13%) reported suffering regularly (always or often) from severe headaches – which could result from excessive noise or poor ventilation – and even fewer reported experiencing frequent feelings of dizziness.

But the proportion of workers who felt hungry at work was high – two-thirds said they were often or always hungry; one in ten workers said they always experienced severe thirst.

Workers' assessments of their own health appeared to be positive, with 49% rating their health as "excellent," "very good" or "good" at baseline. Also, the number of workers assessing their health as "poor" was lower than 5%. More than 70% of workers reported the health of their daughters and sons as "excellent," "very good" or "good."

Excessive overtime was a serious concern for 18% of workers at baseline

Excessive overtime was a serious concern for 18% of workers at baseline, with some difference between women (17% reporting to be very or moderately concerned) and men (26%).

Another issue was sexual harassment, with several indirect questions used in surveys to attempt to understand its prevalence. 9% of workers said they often felt uncomfortable because of joking and flirting in the factory. 27% reported these types of behaviour coming from their supervisor or manager sometimes or often. Also, 40% of workers disagreed with the statement that there is a clear and fair system for reporting sexual harassment in their factory.

Overall, however, the majority of workers were "very comfortable" or "somewhat comfortable" in seeking help from their supervisors if they encountered a problem in the factory.

However, many workers negatively assessed their supervisors' ability to follow factory rules, with 31% of respondents in the baseline survey saying their supervisor does so "rarely" or "never."

Furthermore, almost a third of respondents also said they were "very likely" or "likely" to be terminated or would fail to receive a contract renewal if they were involved in trade union activities.

Two-thirds of workers said there have been no strikes since they joined the factory. For the others, the most common causes of strike activity were reported as: excessive heat in the factory, low wages or the removal of a union leader or activist.

Better Factories Cambodia, part of the Better Work Program, was created in 2001 as a partnership between the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group. Originally, the project was linked to a trade agreement with the United States that provided market access in return for improving working conditions in the garment sector.

Building on the lessons learnt from this project, Better Work was established in 2009 to help address the challenges faced across global supply chains, such as international buyers eager to reduce costs and audit fatigue, and enterprises looking to increase competitiveness to maintain access to global markets. Currently, the Better Work Program operates in seven countries: Cambodia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, Jordan, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

The survey of Better Factories Cambodia participants builds on an earlier assessment of 15,000 garment workers and 2,000 factory managers involved in the Better Work programme in Haiti, Indonesia, Jordan, Nicaragua and Vietnam. This established a link between improved working conditions and factory competitiveness – but also found the sourcing practices of global buyers remains one of the biggest challenges to progress.

How better factory conditions help boost the bottom line