Union leaders have been meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh this week to look at ways to curb the garment industry's widespread use of temporary or short-term contracts for hiring workers - and have warned they could resort to strike action if changes aren't made.

The unions are uniting to put pressure on the government, factory owners and buyers to take steps to put an end to the practice, which they say is illegal.

The short-term, temporary contracts - referred to in Cambodia as 'fixed-duration contracts' - are repeatedly renewed. However, their use can lead to increased worker insecurity, denies workers benefits to which they are entitled, including maternity leave, and can coerce workers into forced overtime.

However while the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents employers, confirmed that temporary contract are used, it warned foreign investors' interest would be harmed if the government backs the unions' requests.

Of major concern for the unions is the face that fixed-duration contracts are being used to avoid paying maternity leave to female staff, who make up the overwhelming majority of a workforce that produces about 85% of the Kingdom's exports.

"Women on fixed-duration contracts often have to choose between keeping their jobs and having children," said Chheng Kim Lang, a representative of the Cambodia Labour Confederation. She said that because the labour law requires employers to provide maternity leave to employees who have worked for them for one year, factory managers were using six-month contracts to avoid this.

Short-term contracts also hurt "labour productivity and corporate competitiveness by discouraging human resource development and jeopardising industrial relations", a statement from the union leaders said.

At some garment and footwear factories, up to 90% of staff are on short-term contracts, they said, adding that the use of such contracts is far less prevalent in countries whose garment industries compete with Cambodia's.

Although the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia says the labour ministry has interpreted the law to allow for the indefinite use of fixed-duration contracts, not all of its members use them.

Kevin Plenty, a member of GMAC's executive committee, said his company, Quantum Clothing (Cambodia) Ltd, uses long-term contracts "because they allow us to increase productivity and efficiency."

A study the sector's recruitment practices earlier this year warned the use of short-term employment contracts in Cambodia not only threatens to erode the industry's competitiveness but also violates labour laws and could lead to widespread unrest.