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Unionists Skeptical, as Hun Sen Seeks Better Conditions for Laborers

An estimated 500,000 Cambodians are employed in the garment and textiles industry, throughout some 600 factories, up from 300,000 in 2009.
WASHINGTON DC - Prime Minister Hun Sen says he wants migrant workers to return home, where Cambodia is facing a shortage of labor, and has urged the Ministry of Public Works to improve garment factory conditions.

An estimated 500,000 Cambodians are employed in the garment and textiles industry, throughout some 600 factories, up from 300,000 in 2009. But about an equal number of workers are thought to be working abroad in Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

The growth of the garment sector means some of them should come home to the factories, Hun Sen said Wednesday.

“We are really lacking laborers,” Hun Sen said in a speech to officials from the Ministry of Public Works and others. “Workers will go where there are more benefits. We cannot force the workers to work for you with cheaper wages than other places.”

Labor activists welcomed the prime minister’s acknowledgement of the problems hurting the sector, but said they remain skeptical that anything will change.

“We want to see whether what the prime minister has raised up becomes the truth,” said Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions. He said he doubted that lower-level government employees would do anything to heed Hun Sen’s request.

Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, said Hun Sen’s speech was surprising, given that NGOs have worked on the problems in factories for a long time. If Hun Sen’s requests are followed, and if he wasn’t just giving the speech for political purposes, “I think it can solve the problems,” Moeun Tola said.

With good working conditions and wages, Cambodia could become the magnet for workers, such as those in Burma, rather than being a source for workers to other countries, he said.

Prum Vannak, a labor activist who escaped slavery aboard a Thai fishing vessel, said Cambodians should work in their own country as long as it provides for them and their families.

“Today, even though I just have enough to maintain my living standard, only $100 to $200 a month, I work in Cambodia because I recall that working abroad is not as good as working in the country,” he said. Migrant workers face the dangers of enslavement, arrest at the hands of police and abuse at the hands of employers, he said.

Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said Cambodia will not be able to attract investors in heavy industry, because its garment sector employs mostly women. That means work in the sector will continue as normal—with poor conditions for workers, continued labor strife and pressure from employers looking to spend as little money as possible on production.

“The prime minister’s speech is meaningless,” he said.