US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed improved trade with Cambodian leaders during his visit to the capital on Tuesday, prompting hope amid labor leaders for stronger workers’ rights, but also that more markets could open.
Addressing more than 100 journalists following talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, Kerry said trade and investment have traditionally moved the US’s relationship with Cambodia forward and would continue to do so.
“And I think it is actually quite remarkable that the United States is, in fact, Cambodia’s largest export market today, even though we have half the world between our countries,” he said.
Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page Wednesday that he had met for an hour with Kerry. Hun Sen asked for more US markets for Cambodian goods.
The main purpose of Kerry’s visit was to discuss an upcoming US-Asean meeting in California next month, which will include a lot of discussion on trade.
“Our trade and investment ties have long served to propel our relationship forward,” Kerry said Tuesday. “We agree that it is very valuable for Cambodia to have a diverse set of trading partners. There is no choice between one partner or another; there is room for everybody, enormous capacity for growth.”
Hor Namhong told reporters he had pushed for tariff breaks on garments and shoes, two of Cambodia’s main exports to the US.
Cambodia’s garment, textile and shoe industry employs some 700,000 people, but the sector remains restive, with workers demanding higher wages as the cost of living in Cambodia increases.
Labor leaders said this week they hoped Kerry’s visit would prompt Cambodia to improve workers’ rights. They remain concerned about an impending law to regulate unions, a law they say will hurt Cambodia’s efforts to create fair wages and improve working conditions.
“There should be talks with the government and parliament in order to come up with a better draft law which is in compliance with both local and international law,” Ath Thon, head of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, told VOA Khmer.
US influence could improve conditions for Cambodian workers, he said.
The draft law on unions is under discussion at the National Assembly, but labor leaders say they have been disappointed by provisions that make it harder to form unions and that create more red tape, through registration requirements and financial reporting, for unions that already exist.
Kerry said Tuesday that human rights and good governance remain “critical” to US-Cambodia bilateral relations.
Aside from trade, Kerry, Hun Sen and Hor Namhong discussed security issues.
Hor Namhong told reporters that he had maintained Cambodia’s “neutral stance” on the South China Sea issue, which pits China against four Southeast Asian nations, as well as on North Korea’s nuclear testing.
Hun Sen said he assured the US that Cambodia will continue to partner on issues of terrorism and extremism, “as well as supporting peaceful negotiations for the region’s conflicts.”