The garment sector employs more than 700,000 Cambodians according to the FLA.

The garment sector employs more than 700,000 Cambodians according to the FLA.

Apparel majors and industry bodies are calling on the Cambodian government to start protecting "fundamental human rights" or risk its future business with global brands.

Cambodian government officials earlier this month met with representatives from the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and representatives from brands including Adidas, New Balance, Nike, Puma, Under Armour and VF Corp, to discuss the rights of workers in the Cambodian garment, footwear and travel goods sector. 

The delegation said it is imperative Cambodia improves its labour rights performance to enable the country to sustain and grow its share of the sourcing market.

Earlier this month the European Commission said it had begun the formal process of withdrawing Cambodia's access to the duty-free Everything But Arms (EBA) initiative over the Southeast Asian nation's human rights record.

And global ratings agency Moody's Investor Services has warned such a move would weaken the country's economic growth and undermine the price competitiveness of its garment exports.

The garment sector employs more than 700,000 Cambodians – most of whom are women – making it one of the largest sources of employment in the country. In 2017 the revenues from apparel, footwear, and travel goods manufacturing totalled more than $5bn, which constitutes the majority of Cambodia's export income.

The Cambodian government was requested to uphold worker rights and drop criminal charges in the cases of several labour leaders. The delegation also urged amendments of the 2016 Law on Trade Unions (TUL) and implementing regulations that limit the ability of Cambodian workers to form and engage freely in trade unions.

It stressed the protection of fundamental human rights will be critical if Cambodia is to maintain and enhance the confidence of international brands sourcing in Cambodia.

"Cambodia has been a good partner to our brands through the years, and we have seen dynamic growth in the domestic apparel, footwear, and travel goods industry in this country," said Rick Helfenbein, president and CEO of the AAFA.

"That said, we are increasingly concerned about specific policies and actions the government has taken in the past year. We hope the government will embrace the reform measures we raised today. The nature and scope of future engagement by global brands in Cambodia will likely depend on improvements with labour rights issues that were discussed today."

Michael Posner, board chair of the Fair Labor Association and the director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, noted the direct link between the labour and human rights environment and the ability of businesses to work effectively in Cambodia.

"We are deeply concerned about the shrinking space for labour leaders to operate freely in Cambodia, which is part of a broader pattern of restrictions civil society. The Fair Labor Association stands ready to work with the government and all other stakeholders in Cambodia to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and that companies can confidently do business in this country."