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New Report on Labor Rights Highlights Abuses

Cambodian Garment workers buy some cheap food for their lunch in front of the factory in downtown of Phnom Penh, file photo.
Cambodian Garment workers buy some cheap food for their lunch in front of the factory in downtown of Phnom Penh, file photo.

Human Rights Watch has issued a new report on labor rights in Cambodia, saying that both international buyers and the Cambodian government have failed to protect factory workers from abuse .

The report, “Work Faster or Get Out,” released Thursday, says Cambodia’s predominantly female workers “often experience forced overtime, pregnancy-based discrimination, and anti-union practices” that neither international companies nor Cambodian authorities have curbed.

Major pro-labor demonstrations through late 2013 escalated into a brutal government crackdown on protesters in January 2014, leaving at least five people dead. Eventually, the government relented on a call for a raise in the minimum wage, but Human Rights Watch says abuses in factories remains widespread.

“We see systematic union busting,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the group’s Asia division, said in a press conference in Phnom Penh. “We see systematic firing of pregnant women and avoiding paying maternity benefits. We see systematic harassment of enforced overtime.”

And while the Cambodian government is mostly responsible for ensuring factories follow local and international labor laws, international brands “have a responsibility to promote respect for workers’ rights throughout their supply chains, including both direct suppliers and subcontractor factories,” the report says.

“Many brands have not fully lived up to these responsibilities due to poor supply chain transparency, the absence of whistleblower protections, and failure to help factories correct problems in situations where that is both possible and warranted,” the report says. “Some brands remain nontransparent about their policies and practices, withholding information on issues of concern, while other brands notably provide information and voluntarily subject themselves to greater public scrutiny and demonstrate a commitment to improved policies.”

The group interviewed 340 people for the report, including 270 workers from 73 different factories in and around Phnom Penh.

Workers in 48 factories said they were forced to work overtime or face “dismissals, wage deductions, and punitive transfers.”

“Women workers from 30 factories cited specific abuses, including refusing to hire, renew short-term contracts, or provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers, making it difficult for them to work in factories,” the report says. “Workers from some factories found it difficult to take medically approved sick leave. Human Rights Watch also documented unlawful child labor in 11 of the factories examined. The worst abuses were reported in smaller subcontractor factories, which produce for larger factories with export licenses.”

The garment and textile sectors, with major investments from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea, now employ an estimated 700,000 people. Exports in 2014 reached $5.7 billion, up from $4.96 billion in 2013.