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HRW: Cambodia Failing to Protect Garment Workers

Human Rights Watch's Aruna Kashyap and HRW's Phil Robertson, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 12, 2015. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)
Human Rights Watch's Aruna Kashyap and HRW's Phil Robertson, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 12, 2015. (Robert Carmichael/VOA)

Human Rights Watch says lax labor laws in Cambodia are allowing garment factories, including many suppliers for Western brands, to take advantage of vulnerable workers.

In a report released Thursday, the New York-based rights group documented a "persistent pattern of labor rights violations," including forced overtime, pregnancy-based discrimination, and anti-union practices.

The garment industry is a major part of the economy in Cambodia, which is among the world's poorest countries. The industry employs over 700,000 workers in the nation of 15 million people.

Cambodia has seen a wave of recent labor unrest and authorities there have violently crushed protests aimed at securing a higher minimum wage for garment workers.

The country enacted a "strong labor law" in 1997, according to Human Rights Watch. "But its enforcement remains abysmal," in large part due to ineffective government inspections, the report said.

Corruption is a key reason the labor inspectorate lacks credibility, according to the study.

While the report said the Cambodian government is "primarily responsible" for ensuring compliance with international human rights law, it also urged international clothing brands to do a better job protecting workers' rights throughout their supply chains.

“The Cambodian government should take swift measures to reverse its terrible record of enforcing its labor laws and protect workers from abuse,” said Aruna Kashyap, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These global apparel brands are household names. They have a lot of leverage, and can and should do more to ensure their contracts with garment factories are not contributing to labor rights abuses.”

Workers from 48 factories told Human Rights Watch they were forced to work overtime. If they did not comply, many said they faced retaliatory measures, including dismissals, wage reductions, and punitive transfers.

In 35 factories, bosses were reported to be undermining unions that protect worker rights. The report said they did this by dismissing and intimidating newly elected union leaders and by giving workers short-term contracts.

The rights of pregnant women is also a major concern in Cambodia's garment industry, where 90 percent of the workers are women. Workers in 30 factories reported abuses including refusal to hire, renew contracts, or provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers.

The report was based on interviews with more than 340 people, including 270 workers from factories in and around the capital, Phnom Penh.

Among the international apparel brands with whom Human Rights Watch contacted, it said only Adidas, Gap and H&M "seriously discussed their efforts" to address the problems found.