Cambodian government under pressure over garment sector

GMT 12:37 2015 Monday ,16 March

Sriyadithatextile - Cambodian government under pressure over garment sector

Speakers: Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union; Dave Welsh, country representative of the Solidarity Center. CARMICHAEL: This week's meetings were the second between government officials and some of the world's leading brands since at least four garment workers were shot dead in January by the authorities during violent protests. The workers were seeking a rise in the monthly minimum wage from 100 dollars to 160 dollars. Since January, dozens of people have been arrested and charged with criminal offences such as incitement and damage to property. In the largest such case, the trial of 23 workers and unionists wrapped up last week in Phnom Penh. A verdict in their case will be handed down on Friday. Rights groups and some unions complain that the authorities are using the country's pliant courts to crack down on industrial action within the 5.5-billion-dollar a year garment sector, a vital pillar of the economy that accounts for 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings. The unremitting flow of bad news is why representatives from brands such as H&M, Puma and Inditex met on Monday with government officials. On Tuesday, they met with GMAC, the association that represents the hundreds of factories to which they subcontract their production, most of which is exported to the U.S. and the European Union. Also present was Jyrki Raina, the general secretary of IndustriALL, a global union group with 50 million members. Raina says the government heard a unified message: that political stability and respect for workers' rights are essential if brands are to continue sourcing from Cambodia. RAINA: The brands are very dependent on their image. Consumers are asking questions, and it's not good news for sales or reputation if the media reports, as they regularly do, about violations of workers' rights, slave labour wages - as Pope Francis called them - and otherwise long working hours and unsafe and unhealthy work places. CARMICHAEL:The meetings were closed to the media, and brands have yet to comment on what was said. But according to Raina, brands said that while they are prepared to pay more to ensure a higher minimum wage, the government must also act: it must stop using violence and the courts against union representatives and workers, and must speed up the process used to determine the minimum wage. The low minimum wage is at the heart of worsening industrial relations, says Raina. The current level of $100 a month simply isn't enough. RAINA:"It's not a living wage. And that is why people work 10-14 hours a day. It's very important to find a path now towards a living wage that covers the basic needs and makes it possible for people to have a life." CARMICHAEL:In response, the government has agreed to meet next month with unions and garment manufacturers to discuss its research into the minimum wage and what has been done to establish a formal wage-setting process. However the government seems to be holding firm against complaints that it is using the courts to intimidate unionists: Heng Suor, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labour, told local media late Monday that the courts were pursuing only those who had broken the law. Dave Welsh, the country representative of the Solidarity Center, a non-profit affiliated with the US labour movement, says the slew of bad news stories in recent months has damaged Cambodia's reputation as a model industry, and is also risking the image of brands. He says the government and the factories that make clothing for brands need to act. WELSH: The garment industry represents 80 percent-plus of the country's export GDP, so I suspect it's in their interest to listen fairly clearly as to what the major brands are saying. This is the second time they've done this in four months, which demonstrates a level of seriousness and urgency to this. And frankly, this is a pivotal week. CARMICHAEL: As Welsh points out, the brands could go elsewhere. WELSH: There's no question that the government needs brand presence here more. There's no brand, no single brand in the global apparel supply chain that is basically reliant on Cambodia in the way that they're reliant on, say, Bangladesh, for their commercial viability. CARMICHAEL:With the meetings wrapped up, all eyes are now on Phnom Penh's court to see whether on Friday it hands down jail terms to the 23 accused in a case that has been widely dismissed as a sham.

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