Factory shutters in shame

April 11th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

The Zongtex Garment factory off Phnom Penh’s Russian Boulevard looks like a nondescript residential compound, hidden down a dead-end road. There are no signs suggesting that it supplied to some of the world’s leading high street names – and the US military.

Taiwanese-owned Zongtex Garment Manufacturing made clothes for Sears, Macy’s, the Moret Group, Komar Brands and Costco, according to a Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) audit released last month. It also supplied to the US military’s Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

Allegations in the WRC audit – the result of a years-long investigation – range from union busting to child labour and poor occupational safety, with one worker reporting that she soiled herself at her sewing machine because she was not permitted to use the bathroom. According to the WRC report, while its main facility near Veng Sreng Boulevard was registered with the Ministry of Labour, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia and the International Labour Organisation program Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), its second factory operated under the radar. …

Daniel Pye, Alice Cuddy and Chhay Channyda

Unions drum up strike support

April 10th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

At the site where security forces shot dead at least four people during a nationwide strike on January 3, union leaders yesterday passed out fliers encouraging workers to join a stay-at-home strike after Khmer New Year.

When workers filed out of Canadia Industrial Park’s gates for their 11am lunch break, Seam Sambath, president of the Workers Friendship Union Federation, made his case to passing garment workers – action similar to that which resulted in a unionist being detained in Svay Rieng province on Sunday. …

Mom Kunthear and Sean Teehan

Ministry reiterates holiday pay

April 2nd, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

The Ministry of Labour has announced that factory managers must allow employees three days off for Khmer New Year, even as some union leaders encourage workers to extend that time.

In a letter to factory owners dated March 25, Labour Minister Ith Sam Heng reminds owners that workers have the legal right to paid time off from April 14 until April 16. …

Mom Kunthear

A refined approach?

March 11th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

Hundreds of trucks hauling sugarcane queue up along the dusty roads that cut a path through a plantation in Kampong Speu province. Their destination: Cambodia’s most advanced sugar refinery.

Its owners say the landmark project, run by the Phnom Penh Sugar Company and its president, ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat, is a boon for Cambodia’s poor and a pathway to greater prosperity. Rights groups, however, say the outfit produces “blood sugar”, a commodity whose profits serve Cambodia’s elite at the expense of locals and their land.

As this dispute and the industry that it’s part of face increased global scrutiny, the firm’s opening of its doors to the media last week offered a rare glimpse inside one of its most well-known but least understood ventures. …

Cambodia is traditionally a net importer of sugar. In 2012, more than $8.5 million was spent on importing nearly 20,000 tons, down from 31,000 tons in 2011, thanks to an increase in domestic supply.

Increased domestic production has also meant increased exports. Under the EU’s Everything But Arms trade scheme, least-developed countries like Cambodia enjoy duty-free access to EU markets.

Sugar exports to the EU more then quadrupled last year, from 15,500 tons in 2012 to close to 65,000 in 2013. Rights groups have called on sugar to be revoked from the trade benefit scheme, saying the preferences enable rights abuses, which normally take the form of land grabs and forced evictions. …

Daniel de Carteret

ILO convention still debated

March 6th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

The government has no intention of withdrawing its signature from the International Labour Organization’s freedom of association convention, despite calls for it to reconsider its position, a Ministry of Labour spokesman said yesterday.

“I don’t think we will withdraw. The prime minister [Hun Sen] has already said he will commit to freedom of association,” said the ministry’s Heng Sour. “To my understanding, the government has no intention to [withdraw].”

At the Government-Private Sector Forum on Tuesday, Nang Sothy, from the forum’s industrial relations group, called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to consider whether the ILO’s convention 87 was benefiting Cambodia, in the wake of union-led garment strikes in January in which security forces shot dead at least four workers and factories lost millions of dollars. …

Shane Worrell

Unions plan forum

March 3rd, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

The leaders of 18 unions and union confederations this week will invite ruling and opposition party members to take part in a public forum where labour relations issues will be discussed.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), yesterday said the letters have already been drafted and signed, with the forum to take place before a stay-at-home strike planned for later this month. …

The forum, which is scheduled to take place on International Women’s Day next Saturday, is the next step in garment workers’ persistent protest of the government’s failure to set the industry’s minimum monthly wage at $160 and the continued detention of 21 garment workers arrested at demonstrations supporting a nationwide garment worker strike in early January. …

Mom Kunthear

Alarm over workers to Emirates

February 18th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

Cambodian labourers may soon be recruited to construction sites in the United Arab Emirates, where conditions are described as “tragic” by human rights groups.

The Lebanon-based company that would hire the workers under the prospective scheme, Agostine & Raphael Group, is run by Middle Eastern tycoon Kamal Agostine, who also serves as the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism’s official envoy to the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council.

On Friday, Agostine met with Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng in Phnom Penh to hammer out the details of a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which looks likely to be finalised in the near future. …

Friday’s meeting came a day after a report by the Nepalese rights group Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee said at least 400 Nepalese workers had died on construction sites in Qatar as the UAE’s next-door neighbour prepares for the World Cup in 2022.

Conditions for Asian migrant workers in the region are widely understood to be dire, with local regulations heavily favouring companies’ rights to use cheap, disposable labour over the rights of workers to enjoy an acceptable standard of living. …

Daniel Pye

Union reps fired after strike

January 28th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

Despite Cambodia’s labour law forbidding employers from taking action against workers for engaging in union activity, more than 100 labour union representatives have been fired from at least 12 factories this month for encouraging workers to strike for a $160 monthly minimum wage.

The firings came shortly after the mass strike over wages waned in the wake of authorities shooting dead at least four people on January 3 and a subsequent government ban on public demonstrations. …

Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions (CATU) president Yang Sophorn yesterday said 50 CATU union representatives have been fired from the Manhattan Textile and Garment factory in Kampong Cham since early January. …

The majority of union leaders fired in the wake of the large-scale strike are members of CATU and the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said Moeun Tola, head of CLEC’s labour program. Reasons for firing them were largely for encouraging workers to participate in the strike, an action protected under Cambodia’s labour law, he added. …

Sean Teehan and Mom Kunthear

Strike action still on table, unions say

January 16th, 2014 , The Phnom Penh Post

Leaders of unions that declared a nationwide garment worker strike said the work stoppage and protests, which they temporarily suspended, will resume unless government officials renegotiate the industry’s minimum wage.

The announcement was their first since authorities cracked down on strike demonstrations on January 2 and opened fire on protesters near Canadia Industrial Park the following day, killing at least four.

Speaking at a forum, union heads appealed to the government to release 23 people arrested during demonstrations and to hold authorities accountable for the deadly shooting, in addition to entering into minimum wage negotiations with unions. …

Sean Teehan and Mom Kunthear

Garment workers told to go back to factories

December 18th, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

About 30,000 garment workers from 40 factories in Svay Rieng province yesterday were told to return to their jobs after being sent home Monday amid fears a strike over the minimum wage would turn violent.

Has Bunthy, a provincial department director at the Ministry of Labour, said police would patrol inside some factories and on the streets outside others, all in Bavet town, to ensure peace prevailed. …

The Ministry of Labour is due to announce its decision on a minimum wage increase on Thursday next week.

The figure is expected to climb from $75 to $160 by 2018, but the ministry is discussing whether that will happen in stages or all at once. …

Mom Kunthear

Factory’s contracts seen as ‘test case’ for brands

November 1st, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

A garment factory’s alleged efforts to wipe workers’ contract histories clean could be a “test case” for how much international buyers tolerate factories negotiating outside of legal requirements, a labour-rights advocate has said.

After effectively being bought out of their contracts, about 300 employees of USA Fully Field garment in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district will return to work today on new contracts as the factory “reopens” under the same name.

Dave Welsh, country manager of ACILS/Solidarity Center, says workers have accepted less than they were owed by law. …

While the garment industry has experienced multiple cases of workers losing benefits when factories have closed then reopened under a new name, this case was more blatant, he added. …

About 20 workers have refused the payouts, which were $650 for those on undetermined-duration contracts and $100 for those on fixed-duration contracts. …

Shane Worrell and Mom Kunthear

Hopes high for maid program

October 18th, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

In one corner of the cavernous training centre, a woman patiently strips the baby blue sheets off a queen-size bed, removing the flower-patterned pillowcases and folding them neatly to one side.

Under the watchful eye of an instructor, she then remakes the bed, carefully fluffing the pillows and making sure the bed sheet is tightly tucked under the mattress so no creases show. …

This faux home, set up at the training facility of local recruitment agency Philimore Cambodia on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, is used to train domestic workers who will soon be sent to Singapore. …

Under a pilot project signed 10 months ago between the Cambodian government and Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower, 400 maids will ink two-year contracts to work in Singaporean households by February.

If it goes well, tens of thousands of Cambodian women could eventually end up on Singaporean shores.

Three Cambodian agencies are participating in the scheme: Philimore, Ung Rithy Group and Sok Leap Metrey.

Both Ung Rithy Group – headed by the Association of Cambodian Recruitment Agencies (ACRA) chief Ung Seang Rithy – and Philimore have been previously linked to a spate of cases involving the exploitation of maids sent to Malaysia, including allegations of abuse, underage workers and maids gone missing. …

But lured by the higher salary available in Singapore, as well as the perception that the rich and efficient city-state has a much stricter legal system than Malaysia, the workers at Philimore say they have no fears. …

But Bridget Tan, CEO at Singaporean anti-trafficking group Hu­manitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), says that tough Singapore laws to protect workers simply don’t exist.

“I think [Cambodia] should be worried,” she said, citing the lack of a minimum wage and the fact that foreign domestic workers are not covered by Singaporean labour laws. …

“The Cambodian worker becomes popular because they are bearing the brunt of the cost and the profit. This is nothing to be happy about. It’s slavery,” she said.

Neither Singapore nor Cambodia has ratified the International Labour Organization convention on domestic workers, which guarantees that certain rights, such as normal hours of work and overtime compensation, are protected. …

Kevin Ponniah and Mom Kunthear

Tougher laws for recruiters

October 9th, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

A new set of prakases tacked onto a law that regulates overseas employment recruitment agencies is a “step in the right direction” towards protecting some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable citizens from scams and abuse, local and international NGOs said yesterday.

But some remain unconvinced that the laws will lead to stricter enforcement against recruitment agencies and overseas employers who have continued engaging in human trafficking, forced labour and a host of other human rights violations since the Ministry of Labour passed the original regulatory decree two years ago.

The prakases, dated September 23 and obtained yesterday, allow the ministry to inspect agencies, require that disputes be addressed within 10 days of complaints, and lay out more specific requirements for agencies.

In a statement released on Monday, the International Labour Organization commended the government’s new measures, lauding the legislation for its potential to “strengthen the existing protection mechanisms for migrant workers and set standards for private recruitment agencies, the recruitment process, and pre-departure orientation training”. …

Recruitment firms routinely victimise Cambodian workers seeking employment opportunities or higher salaries abroad, alternately stealing their money and freedom. …

Workers who are placed in a job abroad through a recruiter sometimes arrive to find hefty bills they owe the agency for questionable fees, said Moen Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center. Others find they have no recourse when placed with employers who withhold pay. …

Sean Teehan

Minimum wage panel sets a meet

September 12th, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

A joint committee designed to bring about wage increases in the garment sector will meet for the first time on Friday, a Ministry of Social Affairs letter obtained yesterday states. …

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he believed the committee could secure greater increases than the $14 hike granted to workers in March.

Mom Kunthear

Thousands fall for Korean work scam

September 9th, 2013 , The Phnom Penh Post

Alleged ringleaders of an overseas employment scam the Ministry of Labour says bilked thousands of clients out of money were charged with fraud in Phnom Penh on Friday.

Oun Sarath, 30, and Kim Sophat, 29, the director and marketing manager, respectively, of recruiting firm You Can Win Co Ltd, allegedly charged their clients $100 for forms the company advertised would permit them to legally work in South Korea, said Than Thavorak, an attorney representing the Ministry of Labour.

But the illegitimate forms the company sold were not authorised by the ministry, and provided clients no legal permission to work abroad. …

Sen David