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Nike Key to Cambodia Garment Worker Victory

Intervention by Nike helped restore the jobs of several garment workers who were dismissed following their election to office at a newly formed local union, a leading union federation said this month.

T-Win Garment Cambodia Co. in the southern province of Takéo, according to IndustriALL Global Union, had dismissed 10 of these employees after they refused to resign from their posts from the group, which is affiliated with the larger Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW). Though CUMW filed a complaint and attended mediation meetings, the manufacturer’s management “refused” to reinstate their positions, the organization said.

CUMW and IndustriALL then turned to Nike, one of the factory’s buyers. After two months of engagement, T-Win agreed to rehire eight of the sacked leaders on April 26 and compensate them for the time lost. (The other two employees decided to quit with severance pay.) The union and the factory also agreed to respect legal procedures and refrain from retaliation.

“We welcome the full reinstatement of the eight unionists with back pay,” said CUMW president Pav Sina. “Labor disputes will be managed peacefully and effectively in the future.”

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Cambodia’s $7 billion garment sector is the country’s largest employer with 800,000 mostly female workers. But it’s been underperforming of late due to sluggish consumer demand amid a global economic slowdown. According to customs data, the value of garment, footwear and travel-goods exports from January to April declined by a year-over-year rate of 24.6 percent to $3.1 billion. Earnings for April alone showed a deficit of 30.4 percent compared to the year before.

The Southeast Asian nation has a history of union-busting under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom experts say has repressed the labor movement with alacrity. While the government has adopted laws strongly curtailing freedom of association, the right to strike and the right to collectively bargain, the pandemic brought with it a ramp-up of its crackdown, resulting in widespread layoffs targeting unionists.

Nike’s code of conduct says it believes that “all workers have the right to freely associate and collectively bargain.” In places where freedom of association and collective bargaining are restricted by law, the sportswear giant requires suppliers to allow for “parallel means” for independent and free association and bargaining.

“We thank Nike for their intervention and the cooperation of T-Win Garment,” said Christina Hajagos-Clausen, director of textile and garment industry at IndustriALL. “We hope that employers in Cambodia fully respect workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining in garment and textile factories and that they build harmonious relationships with unions.”

Suppliers, she added, should “adhere to stronger labor standards because there are increased legislative efforts in implementing human rights due diligence in the global supply chain.”

Campaigners aren’t afraid to use whatever tools they have at their disposal either. Case in point: A group of 20 unions representing workers in Nike’s supply chain, including two from Cambodia, recently filed an international labor complaint with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Washington, D.C, accusing the Just Do It firm of contributing to “severe human rights impacts,” including layoffs, terminations, pay cuts and gender discrimination, at its suppliers by canceling and then reducing orders in the early months of Covid-19.

The Jordan maker, along with U.K. retailer Matalan, is also facing calls by #PayYourWorkers, a campaign endorsed by 260 trade unions and labor-rights organizations worldwide, to compensate 1,200 Cambodian workers who lost their jobs after Ramatex, a.k.a. Violet Apparel, suddenly shut down in July 2020. Campaigners are demanding $1.4 million in unpaid wages, bonuses and damages as owed under Cambodian law. They say that while Nike has claimed that it hasn’t produced clothes at the factory since 2006, worker testimonies and production records portray a different story. Echoing sentiments expressed during the T-Win case, they insist that the Adidas rival has the “leverage and responsibility to make this right.”

Nike did not respond to a request for comment. T-Win was unable to be reached for comment.