Garment workers from the Hana1 factory in Phnom Penh petition for compensation owed by their employers on July 1. (Photo: Radio Free Asia)
A stitch in time saves nine. But the one million garment and footwear workers in Cambodia may be about to have their lives torn apart like a rag.
Some 150,000 of them have become jobless and fallen on hard times, and they feel let down by international fashion giants, local government and trade bodies.
Hundreds protested about the closure of the Hana1 factory in Phnom Penh on July 1, seeking the intervention of the Labor Ministry to solve the vexed issues facing them since the coronavirus pandemic hit the Southeast Asian nation.
Factory owners and trade bodies say they can’t afford to pay workers due to financial losses suffered because of Covid-19.
The protesting workers were planning to submit a memorandum to the office of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. However, they were blocked by police and redirected to the Labor Ministry.
District governor Hem Darith said authorities intercepted the march for fear it could affect public order.
Several hundred workers also staged a protest in Phnom Penh on July 1 at now-shuttered Violet Apparel Cambodia against the suspension of workers, Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service reported.
The protests show that the government is unable to resolve labor disputes according to the law, said Khun Tharo, a program coordinator at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
A survey among the suspended factory workers highlighted the severity of their financial difficulties, with respondents saying they are eating less and are forced to sell land to repay debts.
The survey, conducted by rights groups Licadho and Central and the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, reported: “Hundreds of thousands of heavily indebted workers are now out of work after hundreds of factories suspended their operations, putting them at risk of land loss and other human rights abuses.”
Garment factory owners have asked the government to postpone annual talks on the minimum wage, citing the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic, while workers’ unions are adamant that talks should go ahead, VOA Khmer Service reported.
The current minimum wage is US$190 a month for 2020, up from the $182 workers were paid in 2019.
Global retail giants like Adidas AG and Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) who source their products from Cambodia have expressed their commitment to restructuring their networks in Cambodia, The Phnom Penh Post reported on June 18.
The two companies will work more closely with the government to improve the garment industry’s situation, Commerce Minister Pan Sorasak was quoted as saying.
A joint statement by the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, Cambodia Footwear Association and the European Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia said that due to the pandemic about 400 garment, footwear and travel goods firms have suspended their operations, which has left over 150,000 workers jobless, Xinhua news agency reported on July 1.
"This number is likely to rise sharply in the coming weeks as numerous brands and retailers in Europe and North America have canceled or delayed orders due to the drop in retail sales in Europe from the pandemic," the statement said.
The statement added that jobless workers will receive a $30 monthly stipend from their factories and $40 from the government.
The statement also renewed its call for the European Union to put off the partial withdrawal of Cambodia's preferential trade benefits for a year due to the pandemic.
The EU is the largest market for Cambodian footwear, said Ben Kao, secretary general of the Cambodia Footwear Association.
In mid-February, the EU announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the Everything But Arms scheme, citing human rights violations.
The decision will result in a loss of around $1.1 billion of Cambodia’s annual exports worth $5.8 billion to EU nations.
A joint statement asked the chairman of the European Parliament’s international trade committee, Bernd Lange, to delay the withdrawal until an impact assessment of the pandemic, the Khmer Times reported on July 1.
The garment, footwear and travel goods industry is Cambodia's biggest export sector, employing about one million, nearly 80 per cent of whom are women, in about 1,100 factories and branches.
The industry had gross revenue of $9.32 billion last year, a rise of 11 percent from the previous year.