Cambodia has come a long way from the “killing fields” of the 1970s when 1.7 million people were killed by the communist group the Khmer Rouge. In 1993 it became a constitutional monarchy, and during the same time period began developing a garment industry. Cambodia’s garment industry grew rapidly with $20 million worth of export in 1995 to over $1 billion in 2001.
In 2000 Nike temporarily pulled out of Cambodia after a British documentary discovered underage workers in one of the company’s contractor factories. Since then Cambodia has worked to create a garment industry that treats its workers fairly. The International Labor Organization (ILO) started Better Factories Cambodia in 2001 in order to monitor and report on conditions in Cambodian garment factories. Better Factories works with the Cambodian government and international buyers to make sure the garment factories have favorable working conditions.
In April Better Factories released its report Twentieth Synthesis Report on Working Conditions in Cambodia’s Garment Sector which monitored 200 factories from November 1, 2007 to April 30, 2008. The report states that there are 354,570 garment workers in 326 factories, 92.2 percent of which are women.
The sheer number of women workers explains why last month the ILO released a short documentary about maternity protection in Cambodian garment factories. Women garment workers receive 90 days maternity leave at half pay plus benefits, with the guarantee that they will only have to perform light work for two months after they return. Factories are required to set up day care centers for children 18 months to three years old, and give mothers breaks for breastfeeding for the first year of their children’s lives.
In contrast, Chinese garment workers, the majority of them being migrant women, either have no maternity leave or only partial leave. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) found that 62 percent of garment workers work seven days a week.
Ninety-seven percent of the factories monitored by Better Factories pay regular garment workers Cambodia’s minimum wage, $50 per month. Ninety percent of piece rate workers also receive minimum wage. The majority (98 percent) of regular garment workers receive the correct amount of overtime pay. Ninety-six percent of piece rate workers also receive correct overtime pay.
“Real wages of garment workers were basically flat during the last five years,” according to the report. However, the productivity of the workers increased. In 2000 an average garment worker produced only 5.6 pieces a day, and in 2005 8.7 pieces, which represents an average increase of 9.2 percent a year.
A report on the Cambodian garment industry by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) states that reviewing “literature on the Cambodian labor force emphasizes fair labor practices, corporate social responsibility, and consumers’ and buyers’ willingness to pay premiums for socially responsible production.” The report characterizes the garment industry as “a safe haven for producers concerned with the risks of substandard labor practices in neighboring countries.”
Labor violations still occur in Cambodia’s garment factories. It should be noted that Better Factories focuses on “continuous improvement” rather than complete compliance. As its website states, “While problems still remain, over the last four years of the program genuine progress has been made.”