Dust From A Distant Sun: Cambodia’s Garment Workers

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on 4 February 2011

Over 300 garment workers in Cambodia have lost their jobs after striking for a ‘living wage’ in the latest dispute between workers and bosses for better pay and conditions.

So why should you care? Well, next time you’re choosing your out-of-office / weekend attire, remember that certain high street brands such as Gap, Zara and H&M, get some of their clothes from many of the factories involved (according to Labour Behind The Label).

Before my own trip to Cambodia – alongside a reporting crew in December 2010 –  we had been briefed on the country: the cultural dos and don’ts, the weather, and what issues the country faced. One of the things that interested me particularly was that some freedom of speech was slowly being eroded in Cambodian society, and there were people who were becoming more reluctant to take part in strikes or protests.

While doing further research for the trip, a story about Cambodian garment workers clashing with police caught my eye . The workers had gone on strike after the suspension of a union official. I was curious after what we had been told so tried to find out more on my trip…

In Cambodia I had a chat with a local development worker Simorn, who works for DCA/CA’s Joint  Programme* (a partnership between Danish Church Aid and Christian Aid). Simorn said often the companies say no to things like higher wages because they have to pay out money for things like electricity, as Cambodia’s garment industry wasbadly hit by the recession.

Simorn also explained how some garment workers suffer abuse at the hands of management in the factories. Some union workers have tried to negotiate for better conditions but have had little success, and unrest among workers had been worsened by the assassination of one of the most popular and outspoken union leaders,Chea Vichea in 2004.

According to the president of the Cambodian Labour Federation, Ath Thom, the latest dispute over unfair dismissals involves 379 workers from 18 factories. But Ken Loo, the secretary general of Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said he thought these figures were inflated and that most of the suspended workers had been reinstated.

Ath Thom has appealed to the Prime Minister and sent a letter to the Ministry of Labour about the situation. According to Labour Behind The Label, the government has called on employers to reinstate workers, and the charity says the actions of employers are in contravention of the Cambodian Constitution and Labour Laws.

Now various NGOs and organisations, led by Clean Clothes, are calling for people to contact H&M, Gap and Zara to increase pressure on their suppliers and show their customers that they are committed to ‘freedom of association’ in Cambodia.

It’s your choice how you take action – but do acknowledge that our Cambodian brothers and sisters need our support; support that is warranted, as we, as the consumers of the products they make, play a part in this equation.

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