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Cambodia’s Factory Improvements Hit Brick Wall

Working conditions in Cambodian factories were steadily improving from 2005 to 2011, but a recent report now shows that gains have stalled and in some cases factories have declined in critical areas.

According to data in the 30th Synthesis Report, issued by the International Labour Organization’s Better Factories Cambodia Program (BFC), improvements have stopped in the following categories: fire safety, child labor and workers’ safety and health issues.

Foreign brands and retailers whose apparel is made in Cambodia are aware of the potentially negative consumer reaction to the news of poor working conditions, especially after a fatal factory floor collapsed recently in a Cambodian garment factory near Phnom Penh.

“Some of the non-compliance may be attributed to the industry’s rapid growth since 2011,” said Jill Tucker, Chief Technical Advisor of ILO-Better Factories,Cambodia, in a written statement to the media.

Among the most critical of non-compliance disclosures: 15 percent of factories kept emergency exit doors locked during working hours; 45 percent of factories failed to conduct emergency fire drills semi-annually;  and 53 percent of factories had blocked access to emergency exits.

Compliance data for the report covered the period between November 1, 2012 and April 30, 2013, and was drawn from 152 garment factories and three footwear factories.

“Still, all shareholders need to take stronger steps to halt the downward trend,” Ms. Tucker said.  “If not, Cambodia runs the risk of forfeiting the advantages that accrue to a reputation for decent working conditions.”

“While 25 percent of the factories featured in the report are new, having had only one assessment, more than half have been monitored by the BFC at least five times. These factories have had many opportunities to correct areas of non-compliance.”

What improved somewhat, according to the report, were wages and benefits for workers.

Workers went on strike forty times during the factory inspections, with every strike declared illegal under exiting regulations that ban them, according to the report.

Again, as advocated previously by trade unions and other workers’ rights groups, the report urged the Cambodian government to strengthen enforcement procedures, and urged foreign brands that source in Cambodia to assert their influence in securing the desired changes.  Last year, Cambodia exported about $4 billion in apparel products to the US and Europe.