By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH, June 6 As investment in Cambodia's
textile industry surges, so is labour unrest, putting pressure
on suppliers to the world's big garment brands to raise wages
and improve sometimes grim conditions in one of the last
bastions of low-cost factories.
Hundreds of angry workers rampaged this week through a
textile plant in Cambodia that supplies U.S. sportswear company
Nike Inc, clashing with police over their demands for a
The violence came just weeks after over 1,100 workers were
killed in the collapse of a building housing garment factories
in Bangladesh, another impoverished Asian nation where
mass-produced textiles are the biggest export earner.
Cambodia is considered one of the better locations in the
world for low-cost garment manufacturing with the International
Labour Organisation (ILO) monitoring pay and working conditions
at many factories.
But strikes and sometimes violent protests have been on the
rise as unions emboldened by a shortage of skilled workers press
complaints that companies have failed to raise wages enough or
Strikes by the country's more than 300,000 garment workers
nearly quadrupled last year to 134, according to the Garment
Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, the main industry body.
The 48 strikes so far this year are already more than in the
whole of 2010 or 2011.
"Supply of skilled workers is a problem," said Kaing Monika,
a business development manager at the Garment Manufacturers
Association of Cambodia (GMAC), the main industry body.
"Most existing factories are running at full capacity."
Nike was the latest big brand to face protest action at its
Cambodia-based suppliers in recent months, joining H&M Hennes
and Mauritz AB, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Gap Inc
, and Puma SE among others.
The international brands buy garments from local
manufacturers and do not have direct control over pay or working
conditions. But the major companies have signed to the ILO
scheme aimed at ensuring suppliers meet legal requirements on
wages and work conditions.
The garments industry has become by far the country's
biggest export earner, with shipments up 10 percent in 2012 to
Until this year, the minimum wage in the textile sector was
$61 a month, compared to $38 in Bangladesh and more than $150 in
China. The government raised it in March to $80, including a
health care subsidy, but strikers at the Nike factory and other
workers complain that wage rises have not kept up with costs.
"Life is hard, we have a lot of expenses with a low wage.
Sometimes, we just borrow money from other workers," said
28-year-old Mao Pov, one of those on strike at the Sabrina
Garment Manufacturing plant that supplies Nike as well as
privately held Wilson Sporting Goods Co.
Inflation in Cambodia was 3 percent in 2012, which is low
for developing nations in Asia, although many workers complain
the price of basic items has risen faster.
Sweden's H&M, the world's second-largest fashion retailer,
said a general election scheduled to be held in July had caused
some instability among workers at plants run by its Cambodian
"This being an election year, the situation in the country
was generally more disorderly than usual during early spring,"
said spokeswoman Andrea Roos. After minimum wages were
increased, "the situation on the labour market in Cambodia has
been more stable", she said.
Workers at the Nike-linked plant first went on strike on May
21 even though the factory had raised their minimum wage. The
union on strike says that the health and other benefits that
were previously paid separately were folded into the new wage,
and is demanding another $14 hike.
A spokeswoman for Nike told Reuters last week that
compensation at the Cambodian plant was the responsibility of
the factory, but that Nike was in "close contact" with the
factory and would "continue to monitor the situation".
The Southeast Asian nation's textile industry has often been
touted as a model for fair production because of the ILO's
Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) programme that has monitored
factories there for more than a decade.
But union leaders and activists say the programme has masked
a deterioration in workers' rights as factory owners have taken
advantage of the BFC's lack of enforcement powers and responded
to pressure from buyers for ever lower prices.
Factories regularly violate union rights and exceed legal
limits on overtime work, a report by Stanford Law School's
International Human Rights Clinic released in February found.
The BFC found evidence of sharply worsening fire safety
standards at factories in its most recent report this year.
In May, two workers were killed at a factory making running
shoes for Asics Corp when part of a warehouse fell in
on them at a company that was not part of the ILO programme.
Thousands of workers have been taken sick in mass fainting
incidents in recent years -- including at the Sabrina factory --
a phenomenon that has been blamed on a combination of poor
nutrition, long working hours and poor ventilation.
"The brands cannot hide behind the ILO," said David Welsh,
country director at Solidarity Center in Phnom Penh, which
advocates for worker rights.
"If the brands are not pressuring factories to improve, they
are not going to improve because everybody is out to make as
much money in the industry as they possibly can."