“The situation of garment workers in Cambodia amounts to a systematic violation of a fundamental right to a decent human life,” concluded the expert panel of judges in a verdict delivered today in Phnom Penh. The ruling came after the recently concluded forum officially called The People’s Tribunal on for Minimum Living Wages and Decent Working Conditions for Garment Workers as a Fundamental Right, organized by the International Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the Asia Floor Wage Cambodia, both coalitions of garment workers’ trade unions and workers’ rights groups.
Workers, manufacturers, and multinational brands such as Adidas and Puma testified in front of the international panel of judges. Clothing retailers H&M and Gap were invited but refused to attend. The purpose of the forum was to publicize the concerns of those employed in the garment sector in Cambodia and to investigate the state of pay in the Cambodian garment industry. Following recent mass faintings induced by malnutrition, and strikes pulling more than 200,000 workers to the streets to protest poor conditions and inadequate pay, the tribunal heard evidence from a wide variety of stakeholders.
There was testimony about wages, worker’s rights, short term contracts, intimidation, working conditions, and recent mass faintings. Stark evidence showed that low wages can lead directly to a dangerously low calorific intake, and the consequences of this were seen last year in the mass fainting incidents. The problems include a working environment that is humid, hot, noisy, poorly lit, and with little ventilation and excessive dust. Add onto that the use of chemicals, lack of preventative education and little availability of personal protective equipment and the harmful consequences are inevitable. Many women workers are forced to base their nutrition on food with a totally insufficient caloric content. Hours of overtime work become practically mandatory, thus making much worse the chronic exposure to the harmful environment.
The vice president of National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia
testified: “Every month we have fainting cases. Sometimes it is new workers, sometimes [the] same persons. But if the workers go to the hospital for two or three days, and the doctors say they have no problems, they are still weak. They have to stay at home, and then they lose the attendance bonus, and they don’t get paid for work. Workers face fainting incidents because they can not get enough wages, they can not buy enough food.”
Other important facts brought to light included the dire effects of such short term contract work and low wages on family life and living conditions as well as perpetuating long working hours. 200 workers offered concrete evidence of the impact of poverty wages – their stories should be a call to action for the international garment industry.
One factory profiled was Sangwoo (Cambodia) Co., Ltd. which employs around 4,500 in Kampong Speu Province. The main buyer from Sangwoo is San Francisco-based clothing company The Gap. On October 20th, 23 workers fainted and another 100 felt exhausted and were sent to the provincial hospital for treatment. The reason for the fainting was not officially identified. But the Kampong Spue hospital doctor said that it may be related to poor ventilation in the factory and the chemicals used to treat fabrics. Additionally, workers worked 10-12 hours per day, and many reported high transport costs of US$10-16 per month, meaning they were not able to buy nutritious food. Most of the workers also travel long hours, standing in overcrowded trucks that normally take around one hour or more every day each way.
You can watch a short one minute video about the mass faintings, created by Asia Floor Wage Campaign here:
Ath Thorn, president of Cambodian Labor Confederation said that, “Both Better Factories Cambodia and government representatives have attributed the phenomenon of mass fainting directly to inadequate salaries, and the effect these have had on workers’ nutrition and their ability to rest. Something must be done about this.”
The garment industry continues to be a large contributor of exports and employment for
Cambodia’s economy. It represents approximately 90% of total export value and employs over 300,000 workers, according to the monitoring organization Better Factories.
The minimum wage for Cambodia’s garment workers rose by $5 to $66 a month in January 2012 in a bid to help workers meet basic needs like health care as well as reduce the likelihood of strikes. However, due to inflation, the real value of wage for Cambodia’s garment workers has fallen by over 14% since 2000, even with the wage increase. “Despite experiencing sustained growth in the sector Cambodia’s minimum wage allowance is US$66 a month and is currently the lowest of all its neighboring states,” said Tola Moeun head of Labor Programs for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). “This wage amounts to around half that required to adequately meet the average worker’s basic needs.”
International workers’ rights group the Clean Clothes Campaign also participated and urged governments and global buyers sourcing from Cambodia to take the findings of the People Tribunal very seriously. “With this tribunal we hope to see some real commitment from big brands buying from Cambodia to start addressing the real needs of their workers – a living wage should be at the root of company policies,” said Clean Clothes spokesperson Dr. Jeroen Merk.
One of the judges, Professor Gill Boehringer, Former Dean of Macquarie Law School at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia said that: “It is possible to say that a living wage is a human right. Without a living wage, you cannot enjoy many of the human rights.”
In the tribunal’s decision, the judges stated in their verdict that “the situation of workers in the Cambodian garment supply chain presents severe deficits which correspond to a systematic violation of their fundamental right to a decent human life.”
In the ruling, the chief judge stated that “Despite evidence of the facts, and a clear legal context for these rights, there is a disregard by all parties of human dignity.” The judges also said that “Our view is that the buyers are violating the laws of this country and international laws” and urged immediate reform: “Because of its comprehensiveness and urgency, the implementation of the living wage concept cannot be postponed.”
Most significant in the decision is the panel’s position that “a living wage is a human right. It is implied in the other human rights; it should now be accepted expressly as a human right.” The panel referenced clear and overwhelming evidence that Cambodian garment workers are not paid a living wage and said that “We are persuaded that the failure to pay a living wage violates both national and international standards.”
The panel outlined several recommendations for all parties involved in the garment industry. For the Cambodian government, it recommended putting laws in place to ensure that labor unions can organize, represent workers, and bargain collectively with Cambodian suppliers without harassment, intimidation or victimization. It also urged the launching of comprehensive independent investigations into the mass faintings in order to establish firm foundations for determining the responsibility.
The judges recommended addressing the problem regionally and utilizing the opportunity presented by the global garment industry, particularly with suppliers from China and the South East Asian Region. It said that the government should advance the arguments for a living wage at regional and national levels through a collective approach with other governments in order to address the global supply chain which sees real wages declining and to discuss the establishment of a regional floor wage within the context of the ASEAN framework.
For multinational corporations, the panel urged the implementation of mechanisms for monitoring compliance, as well as reviewing wage standards and said that corporations should move beyond “good intentions” and recognize and prioritize the need for human rights in the workplace in their pricing and procurement policies. Further, it called for these brands to go beyond codes of conduct and other “standards” and commit to the application of a mandatory living wage at all levels and sectors of the supply chain.
A visit to Cambodia to verify the compliance of the garment industry should be assured at their earliest convenience by the UN Special Rapporteurs as well.
In reaction to the verdict, Asia Floor Wage Campaign called for greater commitment from these companies to end rights abuses and said that “So far the international brand response was inadequate. Despite the fact that three of the four testimonies centered on violations happening at H&M suppliers, H&M failed to attend and to account for the evidence brought against them by victims of human rights abuses. Gap also decided not to attend. This was disappointing. Although we appreciate the efforts made by Adidas and Puma to publicly present their perspective, much more needs to be done by brands to tackle the endemic problems caused by poverty wages in the garment industry globally.”
Anannya Bhattacharjee, coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance said, “Wages are a cross border problem and needs to be addressed as such – we all must work together.”
Jeroen Merk, of the International Clean Clothes Campaign said, “Consumers must keep up the pressure while buyers sourcing from Cambodia, such as H&M and Gap, need to answer the question of why they are still not paying a basic living wage to garment workers”
As the economic situation has worsened in Cambodia, the International Labor Organization and its Better Factories Cambodia program, in consultation with constituents, has conducted in- depth studies on the emerging impacts of the economic crisis within the garment industry to help inform suitable responses. These studies covered the impact at the worker, factory and macro-economic levels.
On the day before the panel’s ruling, Better Factories released its extensive report and first of its kind comprehensive assessment of the sector to date, including information and data that can be used for economic and social policies in a range of areas crucial to Cambodia’s future development. The report, From Downturn to Recovery: Cambodia’s Garment Sector in Transition, comes on the heels of the food and fuel price crises, which hit low-income households especially hard, and the global economic downturn struck at a particularly inopportune time for the poor in Cambodia.
The report says that among Cambodia’s employees, garment workers were among the worst aﬀected groups. Moreover, because many factory workers were supporting their families as well as themselves, these crises also threatened the living standards of thousands additional households, typically agriculture-dependent families in the country’s impoverished rural areas. Hopefully, this report will act as a reference point for implementation of increased industry standards for the Cambodian government, factories, suppliers and buyers.