As the U.N. launches an online database to gauge how dozens of factories in Cambodia’s multibillion-dollar garment industry measure up on working conditions, the head of a manufacturers’ association questions whether compliance to higher standards will benefit the impoverished country or just push business to countries with more lax regulations.
The database - which comes just months after a bloody crackdown by security forces on garment factory workers striking for higher wages - was established by the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) and its monitoring programme Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) to bring some transparency to the footwear and garment industry, which account for 95 percent of the country’s exports and employs an estimated half a million workers in 500 factories.
The website lists 21 basic rights that every factory should meet, including no child labour, no forced labour, no discrimination against workers, no dismissal of pregnant workers, sufficient emergency exits, plenty of clean drinking water and correctly paid minimum wages.
Yet the initiative monitors only a tenth of the country’s factories, and one key backer said he would rather not have lent supporting funds.
“We support Better Factories Cambodia, but I would prefer not to, because it is additional costs for us with very limited tangible benefits,” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which is one of the financial supporters of the BFC. “Everyone says, it’s good, because buyers like it, it is better compliance and it attracts brands.”
However, Loo noted that Cambodia’s garment exports have dropped or slowed in recent years, while Bangladesh’s has grown despite being “known for its low level of compliance”. Even after the deadly collapse of Rana Plaza and the country’s election turmoil, Bangladesh’s exports grew 21 percent, while Cambodia’s grew 12 percent, he said.
“So tell me, is compliance that important? If it is, I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something or the buyers are lying.”
LINKING FACTORIES TO BIG BRANDS
For a critical consumer, it is difficult to identify the companies behind the production of our clothes. Behind the international name brands, no information is given about the labour behind the label “Made in China” or “Made in Bangladesh”.
While the BFC transparency database provides a boost to transparency and cleaner clothes, there is no connection on the website between local factories - with names like King Fashion Garment Co, Legend Garment or Good People - and international buyers like Adidas, Gap, and Levis. Making this link more visible would be the next step towards a more transparent global fashion market.
A third of the 51 factories monitored for the database made improvements in anticipation of their inclusion for the release on Monday of BFC’s initial transparency report. BFC expects to increase the number of factories monitored to more than 300 by next year.
“The improvements are obviously good for workers, but good too for the factories that needed a new reason to meet these basic standards. The global garment industry needs more of this,” said BFC’s technical specialist Jason Judd.
Swedish multinational H&M, one of the biggest brands sourcing clothes from Cambodia and from factories in the database, said the BFC initiative is a step in the right direction.
“This shows that the government and the industry of Cambodia recognize the increasing importance of transparency and how this can accelerate improvements across the whole garment sector in Cambodia,” said H&M’s social sustainability manager Anna Gedda.
Cambodia’s garment industry has convulsed in recent months after about 350,000 garment workers went on strike over wages, threatening to cripple the country's main export industry, which tallies more than $5 billion in revenue a year from international brands such as Adidas AG, Gap Inc and H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB.
Security forces - using what the U.N. described as “disprorportionate use of force” - opened fire on the striking workers on Jan. 3, killing five, wounding 20 and bringing the strikes to an end.
Monika Kalcsics, a 2011 fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, is a freelance radio journalist for the Austrian public-service broadcaster ORF.