Cambodia’s garment industry represents 90 percent of the country’s exports and employs more than 300,000 workers by some estimates. It survived the 2008 global financial crisis, although job losses were registered across all special economic zones. But despite its vital contribution to the local economy, the garment sector has been facing criticism that it has been able to maintain global competitiveness only at the expense of providing its labor force with better working conditions and benefits. Indeed, the statutory minimum wage of Cambodia’s garment workers is currently the lowest in the Mekong region.
Last year, more than 200,000 workers in the garment sector went on strike in protest over their pauperized working conditions. The government responded by reminding employers to strictly enforce the occupational safety and health standards required by law.
To further highlight the demands of garment workers, the Asia Floor Wage network organized Cambodia’s first ever People’s Tribunal on Minimum Living Wage and Decent Working Conditions early this month. It was also the first tribunal in the Asia-Pacific aimed at establishing a standard on the issue of fair pricing for garment manufacturers and, in particular, strengthening the bargaining power of female workers within the global supply chain.
Aside from the wage issue, the tribunal also discussed the alarming rise of mass fainting incidents in many garment factories. In 2011 alone, the Free Trade Union reported that 2,300 workers fainted in five factories. Initial investigations revealed that many workers suffered from low blood sugar, malnutrition, dehydration, food poisoning and over-exertion. The government later confirmed that the fainting cases were related to poor working conditions in many factories.
During the tribunal, workers in the “fainting factories” recalled how they regularly work for 12 to 14 hours a day while being exposed to strong chemicals in hot and poorly ventilated environments. Most of the female workers said they also have to travel long hours, standing in overcrowded trucks, to get to work each day.
To stop the fainting, factory owners merely need to ensure that occupational safety and health policies are implemented. Specifically, workers should be taught how to properly handle chemicals and electrical equipment. In addition, workers should be given time to rest at the weekend, while any overtime worked during peak factory production periods should be undertaken in compliance with the law.
The tribunal succeeded in articulating the demands of garment workers, but the proposed reforms still need to be aggressively presented to the government and the global clients of Cambodia’s garment factories. Just a week ago, 162 garment workers in a Preah Sihanouk factory were reportedly rushed to various hospitals and clinics after they fainted at work.
A few years ago, there was a global outcry over the recruitment of child workers in Southeast Asia’s infamous sweatshops, an outcry that forced Western companies, employers, buyers, and local governments to sign a pact against this unfair labor practice. Today, consumers should likewise be informed that clothing companies are able to cut the prices of goods at the expense of Cambodia’s fainting workers.