Labour rights for workers in the Cambodian garment manufacturing industry are notoriously weak, especially due to the lack of a comprehensive legal framework for industrial collective action. In early January 2014, protests by workers demanding a higher minimum wage were violently repressed by police in the capital Phnom Penh. Four people were killed and over 20 taken prisoner. Such clashes are characteristic of the relationship between the government and the labour movement in Cambodia, which faces systematic discrimination and harsh repression.
For workers in the garment manufacturing industry, the freedom to organise into collective bargaining institutions is critical to bring about better labour conditions in factories effectively. There are instances in which workers are forced to work 100-hour weeks in order to keep their jobs, resulting in higher rates of suicide and discrimination against women experiencing gender-related illnesses or health conditions. Multinational retailers have recognised their responsibility to the workers in their supply chains to ensure that the factories from which they source their goods are abiding by international labour standards. The violence in Cambodia threatened their abilities to fulfil these responsibilities.
In response to the violence, brands in the country began seeking means by which they could exert pressure on the government to end its harsh treatment of protesters. They sought a more stable business environment in Cambodia that would allow them to continue doing business there in good faith. Many brands sought the assistance of the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia Programme, which assisted in gathering relevant stakeholders and facilitating the drafting of a letter to the Prime Minister.
This letter, delivered on 17 January 2014, was signed by 30 international garment brands and three international labour unions with operations within Cambodia. The content included language (1) condemning the violence against protestors, (2) supporting the legal rights against detainees and (3) the freedom of association, (4) calling for the imposition of a legal framework for labour relations, and (5) encouraging the formalization of the minimum wage decision-making process.
The letter resulted in a high-level meeting on 19 February 2014 between government ministers and representatives from Puma, Gap, H&M, and the IndustriALL Global Labour Union, which spoke on behalf of the other signatories to the letter. During the meeting, the government was reported to have listened to the concerns of the brands and unions expressed in the letter. Although no commitments were made, the presence of brands, civil society and government at the same table was instrumental in communicating the seriousness of the concerns for all parties involved. The coordination between brands and unions was particularly symbolic, as it made it incredibly difficult for the government to ignore their concerns.
After this meeting, Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) was restrained from further advocacy by ILO HQ in Geneva. This was in response to manufacturers’ complaints that the ILO is primarily an outreach and support organisation, not an advocacy body. After BFC was restrained, the general leadership role in the coordination and planning for brand action geared towards protecting labour rights in Cambodia passed to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).