Globalisation a mixed bag for Cambodian workers

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at SPAMbom4.vsnl.net.in
Sat Aug 26 06:31:33 MDT 2000


Wednesday
23 August 2000

Globalisation a mixed bag for Cambodian workers

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Faced with mounting intimidation and violence from
factory owners and police after strikes and street rallies, thousands of
Cambodian garment workers seeking better wages recently decided enough was
enough. They went back to work.
"Let the workers go back to work and get money first and we will strike
again," said Chea Vichea, leader of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of
the Kingdom of Cambodia, a maverick union. "It does not mean we have lost."
Not exactly the sort of comments that strike fear in global corporate
boardrooms. But it's not a bad entrance for Cambodia's newly aggressive
labor movement, either.
As the garment industry rapidly expands in this impoverished Southeast Asian
nation, fueled by voracious foreign demand for low-cost labor, a fledgling
movement is defying perceptions that most Cambodian workers are just
thankful for a job in the new economy.
So far, sporadic job actions have met with mixed response, bringing only
minor improvements in working conditions - hardly cutting into Cambodia's
growing reputation as a cheap haven for foreign manufacturers.
But as the new math spreads into the Cambodian workplace, employees are
growing increasingly vocal over low pay, long hours and dreary job
conditions.
While the export value of Cambodia's garment industry exploded from $ 24.8
million in 1995 to about $ 700 million last year, the monthly minimum wage
stayed at 152,000 riel ($ 40) - equal to the suggested U.S. retail price of
a single pair of Bugle Boy brand
pants manufactured here. The country has a heavily dollarized economy, and
the garment industry and unions negotiate in U.S. dollars.
Amid the 200-odd factories that have opened in Cambodia the past five years,
the world economy has come home to decidedly mixed reviews.
"At least we should have Sunday to take a rest. We are human," Im Voeun, 29,
said during a 30-minute lunch break one recent Saturday on the main road
south of the capital, where garment factories are clustered.
She often must work 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., and sometimes seven days a week -
even though Cambodia has an official six-day work week.
Like other developing nations from Asia to Africa to Central America,
Cambodia takes its place near the bottom of the global industrial pecking
order, cheaply providing many of the low-end products the developed world
consumes.
The garment industry, with more than 100,000 workers, is now Cambodia's
biggest export earner by far and supplies such retailers as Nike, Gap, Fruit
of the Loom, Oshkosh, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Columbia Sportswear,
according to union activists.
In the new world economy, retailers shop around for the lowest-cost
suppliers, and suppliers - the factory owners, or middlemen, in some cases -
shop around for the lowest-cost
production facilities, wherever in the world they may be.
"The prize goes to those countries with the lowest wages, longest hours and
most repressive treatment of their work force," said a report on the Asian
garment industry by the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, an arm of
the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.
If globalization encourages wage-dampening competition among poor nations,
it also can turn the spotlight on that competition. Where exploitation
marches in, human rights crusaders are close behind.
U.S. law links trade privileges to labor conditions, and Cambodia's tragic
recent history of war, holocaust and dictatorship ensures it receives close
scrutiny.
At the same time, an anti-sweatshop movement in the United States and Europe
has pressured many Western companies to adopt codes of conduct setting
minimum labor standards for their suppliers.
Mostly, though, Cambodian workers depend on themselves. Many Cambodians say
they believe leading members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party have
shares in the factory operations. Little information is available about
factory ownership, and the party has
not commented on it. Labor inspectors are overworked and underpaid.
Workers recently won a hike to 171,000 riel ($ 45) in the minimum monthly
wage after a May Day rally that was the country's biggest-ever labor
gathering and a series of confrontational wildcat strikes. The workers had
sought an increase to 265,000 riel ($
70) a month.
The actions were spearheaded by the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the
Kingdom of Cambodia, which was set up in 1996 as the handmaiden of a gadfly
politician but has spun itself off to become an aggressive, independent
union.
Along the way the garment workers - poorly educated women, generally from
rural areas, many, perhaps most, receiving minimum wage - have become
empowered. Demands are now originating on the shop floors, and the workers,
rather than union leaders, appeared to control the pace of the recent
strikes.
On a recent Saturday, near a cluster of garment factories, thousands of
women were on the roadside, some at food stalls, some walking home for
lunch.
Not everyone was dissatisfied.
Tak Nimul, 25, said she did not take part in recent strikes because she was
happy with pay and working conditions at her factory."I am happy to work
because I can save money and send it to my family," she said, before rushing
back to her shared rented home for a 30-minute lunch break.
But union leader Chea Vichea maintains that conditions could be a lot
better.
"The environment in the factories is hot. They do not have enough air, and
do not have fans. The toilets are ugly. Medical checkups have never been
done," Chea Vichea said.
Management sees it differently.
Van Sou Ieng, a factory owner and chairman of the Garment Factory
Association, said raising the minimum wage to 265,000 riel ($ 70) a month
would have hurt Cambodia's ability to attract foreign investment. Forty
dollars, he said, is good money in an agricultural
society where a worker's average monthly earnings are between 84,000
riel and 95,000 riel ($ 22 and $ 25).(AP)
For reprint rights:Times Syndication Service
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