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Garment Manufacturers Plan Institute To Improve Worker Skills

Garment workers leave a factory for home after work, in Phnom Penh, file photo.
Garment workers leave a factory for home after work, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia wants to build a special school to improve Cambodian workers’ skills and make the country more competitive, but labor leaders say if the school is not provided for free, it won’t work.

Cambodia’s labor sector employs some 600,000 people and is one of the main economic engines of the country. But workers remain low skilled, which means factories in the country can lose contracts for more sophisticated goods to countries like Vietnam and China, where the labor pool is more skilled.

Officials on Thursday broke ground for the Cambodia Garment Training Institute, which seeks to improve sewing and other technical skills, increase productivity and “reduce the dependence on foreign workers” by factories, Van Sou Ieng, president of GMAC, said in a statement.

The institute is being build with financial assistance from the French Development Agency, and aims to train 1,600 workers in the first three years.

Ken Loo, secretary-general for GMAC, said workers and students interested in the industry can take different courses, ranging from leadership and management to design and patterns. This will enable Cambodian workers to take the place of foreign managers, designers and other positions. Right now, “people can work,” he said, “but they lack knowledge. We want to increase domestic production in Cambodia.”

Union leaders say training programs should be free for workers. Ath Thorn, head of the Cambodian Labor Federation, said the institute’s business activities should be made “transparent,” with unions and government considered.

Ath Thorn said workers do need to improve their skills, to move from piecemeal assembly to more skilled labor. “We want them to have a profession, to know how to make shirts, designs and patterns,” he said. But he said unions should be involved and the training should be free. “If they charge, it will be useless,” he said.

For workers like Pheng Sary, 27, whose family moved from Kampong Cham province to work in the garment industry, the institute could be a boon, but not if it is expensive, he said. He, his mother and his brothers work Monday through Saturday, and often overtime, just to make ends meet.

“I want my brothers to learn design and patterns,” he said. “I want to learn management skills myself. But if they charge, it will be hard, because what we earn is for rent and other expenses.”