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January 29, 2020

Cambodia labour issues continue to concern brands – Update

After ongoing concerns over the deteriorating labour and human rights situation in Cambodia prompted a number of brands and retailers to again call on the government to set out steps to bring the country in line with international standards, garment manufacturers now say such a narrative puts workers at risk.

After ongoing concerns over the deteriorating labour and human rights situation in Cambodia prompted a number of brands and retailers to again call on the government to set out steps to bring the country in line with international standards, garment manufacturers now say such a narrative puts workers at risk.

Importers of garments, footwear and travel goods from Cambodia – including Adidas, Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren and Under Armour – fear that if the issues are not addressed, Cambodia risks losing its trade preferences. 

The European Union is currently reviewing Cambodia’s Everything but Arms (EBA) duty-free benefits, while members in the US Congress have introduced bills that would require the US government to review Cambodia’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits. Both actions are based on the declining respect for labour standards, including freedom of association, and other issues related to respect for human rights issues in Cambodia. 

In May last year, a group of companies wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen raising concerns about the labour situation in Cambodia. They now say many of the issues remain unaddressed.

The most recent letter sent this week (22 January) again urges the Cambodian government to “immediately address four key issues”: 

  • Amend the Trade Union Law (TUL). “The amendments promulgated on 3 January 2020, fall short of international labor rights standards, fail to eliminate arbitrary hurdles to union registration, and restrict the ability of all unions to fully represent their members.” 
  • Repeal the Law of Associations and NGOs. “The current law enables an atmosphere of harassment and repression against civil society organisations and unions.” 
  • Drop all outstanding criminal charges against union leaders. “The Cambodian government should cease further baseless judicial proceedings against labour activists.” 
  • Respect and foster the important role of the Arbitration Council. “In addition, the Cambodian government should respect the ability of all unions to represent their workers before the Arbitration Council.” 

The signatories – who include the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), Esprit, Fair Labor Association, Fair Wear Foundation, Fruit of the Loom, Kik, Lululemon, PVH, Puma and VF Corporation – warn that without action, the “credibility of Cambodia’s apparel, footwear, and travel goods sectors are at stake.”

They write: “We urge the government of Cambodia to publicly present a roadmap, together with an inclusive tripartite national mechanism, that sets out, and implements, specific, concrete, and time-bound steps to bring Cambodia in line with international standards on the above issues.”

The European Commission has already given the Cambodian government a deadline to respond to its findings on the alleged human rights situation in the country before it decides whether it is pulling its duty-free trade status. But Prime Minister Hun Sen has reportedly waived off concerns and says the country is prepared to risk losing the benefit.

The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents more than 600 factories, responded to the letter saying it reflected a “flawed analysis” and that it advances a narrative about the sectors that increases the risk of the loss of the EBA and GSP benefits the letter “allegedly intends to encourage the Cambodian government to act to avoid”.

GMAC said it found the letter”counter-factual” and mentions the many efforts it has taken in improving labour and working conditions in the country. It also adds freedom of association for the sector has been “well-established”.

“Indeed the potential loss of EBA and GSP forecast in the letter because of a suggested declining respect for freedom of association is in fact totally upside down. The potential loss of trade preferences for our sector would by definition reduce employment in our sector for workers that have exercised freedom of association and the right to organise trade unions in large numbers.”

“GMAC recognises that there is much work still to do in improving labour and living conditions. But much progress, including increases in wages and social security benefits, has been accomplished. Our sector remains on a positive course. Reading letters that suggest otherwise, especially when they are sent without any consultation, is disappointing.”

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