Thousands of Cambodians Going to Work Abroad Every Month

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Khmer Time/Cambodia: Up to 10,000 Cambodians seek legal employment abroad every month, according to a Labor Ministry official, and some civil society groups are not pleased with the large exodus of workers from the country.

Labor Minister Ith Samheng told reporters on Wednesday that the government sends thousands of Cambodians every month to work legally in many countries including Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and more.

“Each month we send about 8,000 to 10,000 Cambodian workers abroad with legal documents through legal channels of the Labor Ministry and legal private companies,” he said, adding that there are more than 60 private companies processing Cambodian laborers.

Moeurn Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, was not enthusiastic about the high numbers of workers finding employment abroad, saying most are unskilled who will be paid low wages and receive no benefits.

He told Khmer Times yesterday that Cambodian workers who go abroad cannot speak that country’s language well, which puts them at greater risk of exploitation and rights abuses.

“For workers who have little to no skills, they should be helped to become producers in the agricultural and industrial sectors in our country rather than sending them to work abroad,” he said.

“The government does not have sufficient mechanisms to protect Cambodian workers in the country effectively, so violations and exploitation will happen endlessly to Cambodian workers.”

Mr. Tola also felt remorse for Cambodians working abroad who have reduced opportunities to vote in the next election because the government has refused to organize polling stations outside the country, adding that overseas workers would have to take time off to return and vote if they wanted to have their say in the elections.

In nine months this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cambodian embassies abroad have helped 578 Cambodians who went to live and work abroad, either legally or illegally, return to the Kingdom.

Latest Update on Labor Situation in Cambodia

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Labor Briefing – October, 2016
Tola MOEUN

1. Economic situation
Cambodia has experienced strong economic growth over the last decade; GDP grew at an average annual rate of over 8%. Real growth in 2015 is estimated to have reached 7 percent, compared to 7.1 percent in 2014. The garment sector, together with construction and services, are the main drivers of the economy. Growth is expected to remain strong in 2016, as recovering internal demand and dynamic garment exports offset stagnation in agriculture and softer growth in tourism.
Although Cambodia’s economy is growing rapidly, the general population remains one of the poorest in Southeast Asia with the OHPI estimating that 46% of Cambodians live in multi-dimensional poverty. While poverty continues to fall in Cambodia, the pace has declined significantly. The poverty rate was 17.7 percent in 2012, with almost 3 million poor people and over 8.1 million who are near-poor. About 90 percent of them live in the countryside. World Bank estimates suggest that Cambodia achieved the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty in 2009. However, the vast majority of families who escaped poverty were only able to do so by a small margin, thus the significant share of the near-poor.
Prolonged expansion of the economy—fueled largely by garment manufacturing and tourism—has lifted the gross national income per capita up to $1,045 annually. However, the benefits of economic growth have been felt exclusively by a small elite and parts of the urban population. Some 41 percent of the population are left behind, and still live on less than $2 per day. The wealth of those at the top of Cambodian society may be hard to measure, given the off-the-books nature of wealth garnered through graft and other illicit means like the illegal timber trade. But, according to the Asian Development Bank, the unequal share of Cambodia’s growth can be seen in the contrast between urban and rural consumption. For instance, Cambodia’s richest 20 percent of households on average consumes five times more than the poorest 20 percent per day. The poorest 20 percent consumed goods worth an average of $0.70 per person per day. In contrast, the average Phnom Penh resident’s consumption was at least $3 per day.
2. Labor situation
There is no minimum wage in Cambodia, despite the Labor Law (1997) requiring one to be set in the private sector through sub-decree. More than 10 years after the law was passed, this has not been done. The exception is the garment industry which has a minimum wage created through a special agreement between the Cambodian government, unions and the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia (GMAC). Currently the minimum wage for garment workers is US$140 per month. However, this is a very recent improvement and one paid for in blood.
This falls short of the government’s own recommendation for minimum wage required to ensure a minimum standard of living for garment workers which is calculated at between $157 and $177 per month in 2013.
Exploitation has become rampant throughout the garment industry which despite its reputation is typified by poverty wage, forced labor and discrimination and violence against pregnant women and trade union leaders. In the first six months of 2016, CENTRAL alone received more than 1,000 cases of illegal union dismissal, and more than 50 cases of union members being arrested or summoned to court. Although specific data is difficult to obtain, with long stagnant wages, labor relations are considered at best, fragile.
The situation is escalating as evidenced by repeated instances of violence aimed at union members.
In the months leading up to the 2014 wage decision, an innocent bystander was shot and killed when police opened fire on protestors from H&M supplier, SL Garment Processing, who took to the streets demanding increased wage and better working conditions. Several other workers and bystanders suffered bullet wounds, including Mr. Hoeun Chan, who is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Just days after the MOL announced an insufficient increase to the minimum wage armed soldiers chased and attacked workers with slingshots, batons, and metal pipes in front of a garment factory in Phnom Penh. During the violence, the soldiers detained ten protesters, severely beating some and holding them all overnight at a military base without access to adequate medical treatment.
The following day, on January 3, 2014, police and military personnel shot and killed at least four striking workers during a renewed mobilization using live ammunition at the Canadia Industrial Park, in southwest Phnom Penh. Those killed by the Cambodian security forces were employed at factories producing clothing for several major multinational corporations, including Puma and Adidas. An additional 38 people, some of whom work in the H&M supply chain, were hospitalized during the attack, 25 suffering from bullet wounds, and 13 more were arrested.
After a five-month campaign spanning more than 20 countries, and 40 major cities around the world, the 23 were released from prison.
The government has also failed to thoroughly and transparently investigate the deaths, injuries and disappearances that resulted from this violent suppression. Three weeks after the shooting, the government announced that an investigation into the violence had been completed. The report, however, has not yet been made public and high-ranking officials have stated that the focus of investigation was to determine responsibility for initiating the violence not to determine responsibility for causing the death and injury of protesters.
Until the recent wage increases Cambodian garment workers were relatively poorer than they were in the early 2000’s. Despite the violence, collective action saw Cambodian real wages rise for the first time since 2001 – a feat not achieved in the majority of the other major production countries.
Despite the first real wage increases since 2001, Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) survey results show that Cambodian garment workers spend only $1.30 per day on food. A staggering 42% of workers suffer from anemia, 16% are underweight and 8% are severely food insecure. The most significant factors contributing to malnutrition are low wages and time poverty.
Further, despite their health concerns, for 95% of Cambodian garment workers overtime is not exceptional. Most workers are required to complete at least ten hours per day, six days per week. This is not sustainable from a rights perspective or a business perspective.
Talks to determine the 2017 minimum wage commenced in July. A new wage decision was decided on 29 September and current offers $153 per month.
The newly passed trade union law has been used to weaken the role of trade union in representing their members in the collective dispute. Since the law provides exclusive authorization to majority union in collective bargaining process, the Ministry of Labor often refuses to accept or take action on the complaints from independent union when submitted. The refusal has led the decrease of number of cases submitted to Arbitration Council this year. The implication has brought another concern over the intention to make the AC body boycotted. Since the judicial system in Cambodia has seen corrupted and political influenced, both national and international actors gained trust with this body in dispute resolution process. The refusal of collective complaint from independent unions could possibly make the lose of this body function, too.

Briefing on the Labor Rights Situation in Cambodia

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March, 2014 – The Cambodian garment industry employs around 600,000 workers (90% women) in more than 500 registered factories. Swedish giant H&M acknowledges relationships with 55 of these, but with some Cambodian factories known to have up to 12 subcontracted facilities, the real amount is a lot higher. The Swedish Embassy report that H&M is the largest EU investor in the country and in 2013, Cambodian garment exports exceeded US$5.5 billion with over US$2 billion exported to the EU.

Despite the industry accounting for more than 80% of Cambodia’s total exports, workers’ wages remain incredibly low. Moreover, union members continually face discrimination in the form of terminations, violence and arrest. Over the past year, Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) alone received 1,554 cases of dismissal, 102 cases of violence or serious injury, and 48 cases of union members being arrested or summoned to court.

Some of the worst instances of violence against garment workers have occurred in in the past year as workers continued protests calling for the government raise the minimum wage to US$160 in accordance with its own findings on the cost of living. Specifically, the Ministy of Social Affairs, Veterans, and Youth Rehabilitation created the Tripartite and Stakeholder Task Force for Carrying on the Research on a Decent Minimum Wage for Workers which found that the minimum livable wage to cover a worker’s basic needs is between US$157 – US$177 per month. In spite of this government study, on 31 December 2013 the Ministry of Labour (MOL) increased the minimum wage to a mere US$100.

In the months leading up to the decision, an innocent bystander was shot and killed when police opened fire on protestors from H&M supplier, SL Garment Processing, who took to the streets demanding increase wage and better working conditions. Several other workers and bystanders suffered bullet wounds, including Mr. Hoeun Chan, who is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Just days after the MOL announced an insufficient increase to the minimum wage, armed soldiers chased and attacked workers with slingshots, batons, and metal pipes in front of a garment factory in Phnom Penh. During the violence, the soldiers detained ten protesters, severely beating some and holding them all overnight at a military base without access to adequate medical treatment.

The following day, on January 3, 2014, police and military personnel shot and killed at least four striking workers during a renewed mobilization using live ammunition at the Canadia Industrial Park, in southwest Phnom Penh. Those killed by the Cambodian security forces were employed at factories producing clothing for several major multinational corporations, including Puma and Adidas. An additional 38 people, some of whom work in the H&M supply chain, were hospitalized during the attack, 25 suffering from bullet wounds, and 13 more were arrested.

Despite significant international pressure, including the EU Parliament resolution on January 16, 2014 calling explicitly for “Cambodian authorities to immediately release the 23 people unjustly arrested,” 21 of the 23 remain in prison.

The government has also failed to thoroughly and transparently investigate the deaths, injuries and disappearances that resulted from this violent suppression. Three weeks after the shooting, the government announced that an investigation into the violence had been completed. The report, however, has not yet been made public and high-ranking officials have stated that the focus of investigation was to determine responsibility for initiating the violence not to determine responsibility for causing the death and injury of protesters.

Moreover, the government has neglected to investigate the disappearance of a 16 year old boy who has not been seen since the violence on 3 January 2014. A friend and co-worker saw the young garment worker lying on the ground with a suspected bullet wound to his chest. Some bystanders attempted to aid the boy but at the time shots were still being fired at civilians. Those who tried to help him went into hiding, including the main eyewitness, who had himself been shot. At this time, the boy’s fate or whereabouts remain unknown.

►►► Recommendations

To H&M:

Follow up on the January and March 2014 letters with concrete action, particularly: the call to immediately release the 21 people who remain in jail after being unjustly arrested; the call for passage of the Trade Union Law consistent with ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and lifting the current ban on trade union registration; and the call for actions and timetable related to improving the minimum wage determination mechanism. If genuine implementation does not occur, consider suspension of orders placed with Cambodian suppliers pending resolution.

Move beyond “good intentions” and recognize and prioritize the need for human rights in the workplace in pricing and procurement policies and 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 (as recommended at the People’s Tribunal on Living Wage as a Fundamental Right of Cambodian Garment Workers, February 2012).

To the EU:

Follow up on the January 2014 EU Resolution with concrete action, particularly: the call to thoroughly investigate and hold to account those responsible for deaths and injuries among peaceful protesters; and the call to immediately release the 21 people who remain in jail after being unjustly arrested. If genuine implementation does not occur, consider suspension of funding and bilateral aid.

Call for an immediate investigation into the whereabouts of the missing person allegedly shot in the chest and carried away by security forces on 3 January 2014.

Contact persons:

Mr. Tola Moeun, Head of the Community Legal Education Center’s (CLEC) Labor Program

tola@clec.org.kh, (855) 66 777 056

H&M – What is Sustainable for Cambodians?

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From the little we know here in Cambodia, it seems that H&M is considered something of a national treasure in Sweden. As one of the country’s largest companies and one of the world’s largest apparel retailers, H&M offers a lot to the Swedish economy and seemingly to the Swedish people.

Swedes might know less, however, about the role that H&M plays in Cambodia, perpetuating poverty among garment workers, encouraging corruption, and failing to live up to its lofty corporate “social responsibility” standards – all while it profits handsomely from its involvement here.

Ironically, most Cambodians have never even heard of H&M. It’s just a label that goes onto some of the millions of garments produced here. But what a label it is: H&M are believed to be the largest European investor in this country, and H&M is widely believed to be the single largest buyer of Cambodian garments. That is quite a significant position in Cambodia’s increasingly tumultuous – and important – garment sector.

Despite being a historically agricultural society, Cambodia’s garment factories have become a pillar of the country’s economy. Cambodian garment exports were worth US$5.5 billion last year and comprised more than 80% of the country’s total exports – and that number is rising. This figure represents close to one third of the country’s GDP, though a good chunk of that money ends up in the pockets of the mostly Chinese, Taiwanese or Korean factory owners, along with corrupt Cambodian government officials. Almost 40% of Cambodian garments end up in Europe.

 

Despite its reputation as a source of “clean” labor, the Cambodian garment industry is typified by poverty wages, manipulation akin to forced labor and discrimination and violence against pregnant women and trade union leaders. H&M are well aware of this, but many of their customers may not be.

Our office – which provides legal aid to Cambodia’s most marginalized workers – is a revolving door for those exploited and abused by Cambodian factory owners and the multinational corporations that they supply. On any given day, we may see workers who have fallen unconscious at work due to lack of food and or sleep; individuals seeking to avoid involuntary 14-hour work days in 40-plus degree heat; women who have been terminated by their garment factory because they are expecting a child; or workers who were arrested, beaten or shot for trying to start a trade union to change the status quo.

H&M know this well. In fact, one could say that it’s one of the reasons that they are here.

The minimum wage in Cambodia is US$100 per month for a six-day workweek, making Cambodian labor some of the cheapest in the world. Needless to say, this is nowhere near a living wage. It’s barely a poverty wage, especially when you consider that nearly all Cambodian garment workers have children and elderly parents to support.

Perhaps even more shockingly, the $100 wage is only very recent improvement – one paid for in blood. In the last year alone, at least five people have been shot dead at garment factory protests calling for increased wages. A 16-year-old boy (pictured above) who was last seen lying on the ground with blood pouring from what appeared to be a gunshot wound to his chest is still missing, more than two months later. He is likely the sixth fatality.

Dozens more have been shot but survived. One of those is Hoeun Chan (pictured), who is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot during a protest at an H&M supplier, SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd. Although he survived, Chan says that he now “lives a life that is more difficult than dying.” Countless more have been beaten and brutalized with fists, feet, batons, electric shields and slingshots. This includes many pregnant women. Some have miscarried their unborn children.

It was only through fierce determination and with great sacrifice that workers were able to increase their wages to US$100 per month – a poverty wage.

H&M claim that they are industry leaders in sustainability. But how is this sustainable?

H&M also claims all of their suppliers follow national laws in the countries in which they operate, and that they are committed to a paying not just minimum wage but “living wage” – a wage that satisfies basic needs, provides for human dignity and provides for savings or discretionary income. These claims are simply not credible.

Cambodian law provides that the minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity. The Cambodian government’s own studies conducted in 2013 show that such a standard of living requires a wage of somewhere between US$157 and US$177 per month. Living wage estimates are as high as US$395 per month. So how are H&M suppliers fulfilling these purported commitments?

One of the saddest things is that H&M and their suppliers are indeed paying – but not to their supply chain workers. The ILO estimated in March that 10 per cent of Cambodia’s GDP is lost annually to corruption, which in the garment industry equates to US$550 million annually – $900 per year for each of Cambodia’s estimated 600,000 workers. This should hardly be news for H&M, though. Cambodian corruption is legendary; Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perception Index ranks the country 160 out of 177 countries surveyed – worse than Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Nigeria.

Assuming H&M accounts for at least 10% of Cambodia’s garment industry revenues, they are a significant link in Cambodia’s chain of corruption – possibly losing up to US$60 million per year. Is this sustainable?

Cambodian garment workers have not seen any tangible benefits from H&M’s corporate social responsibility rhetoric. They remain poor, they remain impoverished and they remain exploited whilst H&M continue to benefit from public relations campaigns claiming sustainability through various CSR “initiatives, roadmaps, guidelines, future and renewed commitments and pilot projects.”

For years we have pushed H&M to move beyond good intentions and prioritize human rights in Cambodian workplaces. 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. They have the financial leverage to do this. But all Cambodians get are more repackaged promises and recycled rhetoric.

So when H&M claim that they are improving the lives of supply chain workers ask yourself, who is bearing the cost? Is it H&M, or is it Cambodian workers like 16-year-old Khem Saphath and Hoeun Chan?

** Mr. Tola Moeun is the Head of the Labor Program at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. CLEC is a local non-profit, non-governmental organization which provides legal aid to Cambodia’s most marginalized workers. www.clec.org.kh

Union Reps Must Prove Clean Criminal Records

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(Article from the Cambodia Daily)
BY  AND  | MARCH 7, 2014

The government now requires union leaders to prove that they have no criminal record before registering new branches of their organization, according to a statement from the Ministry of Labor, a decision that comes less than a week before planned nationwide strikes in the garment sector.

The statement says that union leaders must submit a letter from the Ministry of Justice proving they have no previous criminal convictions before they can register a new union, said Jill Tucker, a technical adviser with the International Labor Organization (ILO), who said she has seen the communique.

Last week, a Ministry of Labor spokesman said that the constitutional right to unionize has been suspended until a long-awaited trade union law is brought into force. The official retracted his statement the following day without explanation.

Chea Mony, president of the opposition-aligned Free Trade Union, said that his efforts to register new branches of his union this week were once again rebuffed by the government, with Labor Ministry officials now demanding proof of a clean criminal record.

“The ministry needs criminal records from the unions,” Mr. Mony said, adding that the government had made no efforts to consult unions on its decision.

“I think this is discrimination and closes the right to unionize,” Mr. Mony said. “The longtime prime minister [Hun Sen] is not pleased with workers or unions, so the government always finds excuses to cause problems for workers and unions.”

Mr. Mony, whose union has been aligned with Sam Rainsy’s opposition movement since it was founded in the 1990s, was charged in 2005 with defamation and incitement for criticizing a controversial border agreement with Vietnam signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Mr. Mony evaded arrest by fleeing to Ireland. In 2006, Mr. Mony was also briefly detained for organizing an unauthorized May Day demonstration.

The country’s Labor Law, passed in 1997, includes a stipulation that leaders of professional organizations, including workers unions, “shall…not have been convicted of any crime,” but the law has previously gone unenforced.

Officials at the Ministry of Labor could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said that the decision by the government to enforce that provision in the existing law showed its commitment to reining in a labor movement, which, he claimed, is threatening the stability of the garment sector, which employs more than 500,000 workers and recorded over $5 billion in exports last year.

“This signals the intention of the government going forward to enforce existing laws. It is a positive sign for the industry, a positive sign for investment, a positive sign for buyers,” Mr. Loo said.

“No one can do business in an environment of uncertainty, which is what we have if unions are allowed to act illegally with impunity,” Mr. Loo continued.

“It is precisely because the government realizes that things have gotten out of hand…that now the government realizes we should make use of existing mechanisms,” he added.

Speaking at a government-private sector forum on Tuesday, Mr. Hun Sen said that there would be “no tolerance” for union activities that are deemed illegal by his government.

“The government would like to reaffirm that the implementation of the freedom to make demands must be done legally,” he said. “If it is done against the law, there will be no tolerance.”

During a meeting between the government and private-sector on Tuesday, a businessman asked Mr. Hun Sen to revoke the country’s ratification of an ILO convention on the freedom of association, which Cambodia signed in 1999.

A group of 18 labor unions and associations are organizing a nationwide stay-at-home strike for next week, demanding a $160 minimum wage, the release of 21 protesters who were imprisoned following demonstrations in January, and the prosecution of military police who shot dead five garment workers during a protest on Veng Sreng Street.

Leaders of six unions who organized the protest strikes in late December and early January were sued by at least 150 factory owners for allegedly inciting the workers to join illegal protests.

Prak Savuth, chief clerk at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that the case against the union leaders “seems quiet,” adding that he did not know about the status of the 150 factory owner’s complaints.

While factory owners claim there are too many unions in Cambodia, union representatives say that with weak enforcement of labor laws and refusal by factory owners to bargain in good faith, strikes are the only tool they can use to make their demands heard.

© 2014, The Cambodia DailyAll rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

Unions to gather in Freedom Park

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Thousands of female garment workers and workers from other sectors will meet at freedom park tomorrow to discuss about their concerns over minimum wage demand of 160$ per month, release of 23 and other issues related to working conditions.