A tailor-made future for prosperity: Cambodia

In the past few years, a great deal of progress has been made in improving the working conditions of textile factory workers in Cambodia. An ILO monitoring process has helped employers and workers create not only a safer working environment, but better working conditions. This article shows how this ILO project has lead to increases in productivity while boosting the credibility of the factories with international buyers.

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia - In a makeshift, one-room hut balanced on stilts, Sok-Keng helps her four brothers and sisters get ready for the day. Outside, the driving, unrelenting rain has already flooded the kitchen, a modest area on the ground floor next to the animal's pen. The rainy season has arrived.

As the villagers scurry from hut to tree for cover, the sound of a motorbike outside the door tells Sok-Keng that her father is ready to take her to work at the factory. Happily she hops on the motorbike, the family's prized possession, and heads off down the gravel path, now transformed into a river of mud.

In this tiny village perched on a cliff above a rock quarry, one can see the ships off-loading goods and loading containers from the picturesque port of Sihanoukville. The ever-increasing traffic tells people that prosperity is coming to this quiet corner of the world. The process of globalization is transforming this town each and every day.

But life in this village is still characterized by back-breaking work in the stone quarry or the fast-paced but tedious work in one of the numerous textile factories that have sprung up over the past few years. No one complains about the work, because everyone here knows that poverty is just a paycheck away.

"Before I was a soldier. After I was demobilized, I was jobless. Since then I come here to break rocks because there is no other job for me," says Malika without a trace of emotion on her weathered face.

With little education and a lack of opportunities, even the children are pressured, in some way, to contribute to the family's well-being through chores or some type of income generating activity.

Finding a real job

Three years ago, life was so desperate that Sok-Keng had falsified documents so that she could obtain work at a local textile factory. She had hoped that her work would ease the strain of poverty for her family as well as help pay the school fees for her brothers.

But no sooner had she started work when labour inspectors, who were visiting the factory, noticed Sok-Keng and checked her papers. They quickly found out the simple truth: she had only just turned 14 years old. Under current Cambodian law, the minimum working age is 15 years.

Instead of fining the employer and tossing the young girl out, the International Labour Organization (ILO) worked with the employer to provide Sok-Keng with vocational training as a seamstress, skills she would need in this sector for her future employment. And exceptionally, the employer agreed to pay a stipend to off-set the loss of earnings for the family.

"The first time I came to the Vocational Training Centre, I was scared. I could not read or write. But my teacher took care of me and so did my older friends: they taught me to read and write and sew. Now I can make suits," beamed Sok-Keng.

Standards for competitive advantage

This strategy of working with Government and employers' agencies has been extremely successful for Cambodia in such an important sector.

The textile sector here has grown from a modest US $120 million industry into a major contributor to export earnings now with over US$1.6 billion in annual revenues. The US-Cambodian Bilateral Textile Agreement, signed in 1999, which provided access to the lucrative US market, has fostered this tremendous growth. Access, however, was contingent upon demonstrable improvement of the application of labour law and standards.

Currently, there is big challenge facing Cambodia and other countries that rely heavily on textiles as a major income earner. On 31 December 2004, the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA), which created a quota system to govern the garment trade, ended. There is widespread concern that there will be massive job losses in the smaller countries while India and China seem likely to benefit most by capitalizing on economies of scale. The impact is still being assessed and will not be clear from some time to come.

However, in Cambodia there is a feeling that they can remain competitive while respecting high labour standards. Cambodia, while adhering to the tenants of ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, are also implementing sweeping changes recently announced by Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, to streamline the bureaucracy and reduce corruption.

The ILO is assisting through a number of technical cooperation projects, with funding from the United Sates Department of Labor (USDOL), to help Cambodian factories compete effectively in a global marketplace, where there is not only intense consumer pressure for quality goods but also concerns for the treatment of the workers making these goods. Since these projects started, a number of international buyers have returned to Cambodia and there has also been an increase in orders from others.

Soun Ratana, a compliance officer at one of the factories working with the ILO, believes the changes have been good for business. "I am happy that the buyers learn about us from ILO. I receive a lot more orders now for our products by e-mail."

Even the factory's management is pleasantly surprised by the results. "You have to look at it from both sides. From one point of view, we're doing the right thing. We're trying to improve their life style. On the other hand, if you look at it from a strictly economic point of view, our productivity has gone up," stated the Director of one factory participating in the ILO programme.

The Government has requested that all factories involved in export of goods from Cambodia register with the project in which the enterprises agree to give ILO monitors full access to factory premises, whether the visit is announced or unannounced. Monitors speak freely with union representatives and workers, both inside and outside the factory, and with the factory's management. Monitors review issues ranging from noise and heat levels and the calculation of overtime pay, to the use of child labour and violations of freedom of association.

In the past few years, a great deal of progress has been made with improvements recorded in almost every factory. The monitoring process seems to be helping the employers and workers not only to produce a safer working environment with better working conditions, but has also shown that these changes can lead to increases in productivity as well as boost the credibility of the Cambodian factories with international buyers.

Recently, the monitors have reported to the Government that child labour is virtually non-existent in the factories that are participating in this programme. For an industry that employs over 200,000 workers and accounts for 80% of the countries exports, it is an admirable achievement.

"Normally in our monitoring work we find problems regarding work conditions, and at times, some child labour incidents. In our investigations over the past two years we only found 3 cases of child labour and those cases have not been considered serious. In general, it's the counterfeiting of documents for children to get the job," says Chea Sophal, an ILO Programme Assistant and Factory Monitor.

Cambodia is working closely with the international organizations and donors to further develop competitive strategies and meet the growing competition in the textile sector. Cambodia faces some major challenges to growth such as poor education and a deficit of productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure.

The continued strength of the textile industry, as well as an increasing number of visitors to Cambodia for tourism, will be vital as Cambodia tries to develop a private sector that can create enough jobs to address Cambodia's demographic imbalance. With about 60 per cent of the population 20 years or younger, many people will be entering the workforce over the next 10 years.

For Sok-Keng, who is now 17 years old, life is full of possibilities. She now works a full-time job at a new factory making tablecloths and napkins for Western tables. Her job, which is highly sought after because the rate of pay and benefits are better than other local jobs, gives her hope.

"In the future, when I get married, I'll have children. I want them to learn more than just sewing," said Sok-Keng with a twinkle in her eye.