In Cambodia’s garment factories, workers – 90% of whom are women – faint en masse alarmingly regularly, a phenomenon that highlights harsh working conditions. Yet despite advocacy efforts from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), little improvement has taken place. So what exactly are the working conditions like and what can be done to improve the situation?
The garment industry is central to Cambodia’s economy, providing jobs to approximately 475,000 people. Working in a garment factory is often a sought-after position for many women who hope to earn a better wage than what they can expect for in rural areas.
Prior to January 2014, the monthly minimum salary for garment factory workers was $80 USD, which hardly represented one fifth of what the Asia Floor Wage calculates to be a living wage in Cambodia. After months of failed negotiations with factory owners, in December 2013, Cambodian unions called for national strikes demanding a wage increase to $160 USD per month.
Unfortunately, the government has refused to meet their demands. The Ministry of Labor announced that the industry’s minimum monthly wage would be raised to just $100 USD in 2014. During protests in early January 2014, police and military police responded with excessive use of force against striking workers and protesters, leading to the death of at least 4 people, the disappearance of one and dozens of injured.
Low wages lead workers to accept excessive overtime, with weeks of 70 hours or more being common practice in factories. In addition, workers are often hired under short-term contracts which are repeatedly renewed and which allow employers to hold a constant threat over them and to deny them legal benefits, such as maternity leave or seniority payments.
Low wages are also a major factor behind these episodes of mass fainting: insufficient income prevents garment workers from eating enough and from eating nutritiously, especially given the physically-demanding nature of their work. Other reasons are behind this phenomenon – the use of chemical products, overheating in the factories and exhaustion – but as a survey conducted in 2014 by Labour Behind the Label and the Community Legal Education Centre found, an adequate diet – given the nature of the work in garment factories – would cost $2.50 per day, which would amount to $75.03 a month; that is to say,three-quarters of the new minimum salary.
Neither factory owners nor their client brands seem not to consider themselves as accountable for what is happening. Over 85% of the garment factories operating in Cambodia are foreign-owned, mostly by China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia-based firms. It makes unions’ leverage weaker, as government policies are likely to satisfy investors’ request to keep wages low.
Moreover, many of Cambodia’s factories produce garments for Western brands, who also put pressure for production costs – which includes salaries! – to remain low, to keep profit margins high. Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), puts it this way:
With just four major brands, H&M, GAP, Walmart, and Adidas having combined revenues of roughly $608 billion in 2012 (…), almost 43 times Cambodia’s entire GDP, it is obvious to us who has the real power to set working conditions and wages in Cambodia. (source)
Important initiatives are taken in and outside Cambodia to improve conditions in the garment industry. The ILO set up in 2001 the ‘Better Factories Cambodia’ program, a high standard factory-monitoring program which also organizes trainings and collaborates with unions. However, it has sometimes been criticized for the timidity of its requests and its lack of enforcement power.
Civil society also plays a crucial role: for instance, the ‘Clean Clothes Campaign’, an alliance of European organizations, has been ensuring for almost 25 years that garment workers’ fundamental rights are respected, by educating consumers and lobbying governments. It also targets employers, for instance through the 2014 “No more excuses” petition sent to big firms’ heads, among which Cambodian factories’ clients H&M and Gap.
But the continued occurrence of mass fainting reminds us that much more still needs to be done to ensure that workers are protected. Some of the structural recommendations that would go a long way towards addressing these underlying issues including ratification by Cambodia of major ILO conventions and increased pressure on the garment factories and their clients to comply with domestic labor law and international human rights standards. There are also some immediate steps that employers could take to improve the situation and tackle fainting: offering free breakfasts, setting up canteens at the workplace or giving workers a little extra daily allowance for food.
Valentine Gavard, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.