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Walmart-Backed Worker-Safety Program Expands to Cambodia

IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative is bringing its tentpole worker-safety initiative to Cambodia.

The Netherlands-based advocacy group announced Wednesday that it will be rolling out its Life and Building Safety (LABS) Initiative across the Southeast Asian nation’s major hubs, including Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu and Takeo. The program, which has the backing of household names such as Gap Inc., Target, Vans owner VF Corp. and Walmart is poised to benefit roughly 206,000 workers through factory assessments, monitoring, mitigation and remediation this year.

LABS has operated in India and Vietnam since 2019, covering more than 572,000 workers to date. Moving into Cambodia dovetails with the initiative’s desire to mitigate preventable safety risks in key apparel and footwear-sourcing countries, according to Pramit Chanda, global director for textiles and manufacturing at IDH and LABS.

“Aimed at improving worker safety in the apparel and footwear industries, LABS effectively identifies and mitigates the potential risks related to fire, electrical and structural building safety and evacuation,”  Chanda said. “Our expansion into Cambodia is aligned with our goals to scale the programs in key apparel and footwear hubs. LABS continues to build on the learnings and engagements from the work in India and Vietnam.”

The LABS assessment, he noted, is not a “code-compliance check.” Rather, it defines a “required level” of safety based on international best practices and local context. LABS participants, as facilitated by the LABS secretariat, engage in dialogue with local stakeholders, including industry groups, civil society organizations, governments and institutes to create better safety policies and provisions. Factories involved in the program commit to adhere to “harmonized, country-level” structural, fire and electrical safety standards and methodologies. In Cambodia’s case, this will include both the International Building Code and the National Building Code of Cambodia.

The result, IDH says, is a “coherent and consistent” worker-safety framework that weaves together an interrelated set of measures that provide an “acceptable level” of safety in a building. The initiative covers small, medium and large enterprises alike.

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But the program has its detractors, who say that the voluntary brand initiative lacks either union participation or binding mechanisms to hold brands legally accountable for factory conditions. Organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign have also criticized Gap Inc., Target, VF Corp. and Walmart for failing to sign the Accord on Fire and Building and Safety in Bangladesh or its successor, the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, which they say were designed to fix the deficiencies of the traditional corporate social auditing system.

“The safety mechanism proposed by LABS is grossly inadequate,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign, told Sourcing Journal. “In order to properly protect workers, safety agreements need to be legally binding so brands can be held financially and legally responsible for safety problems that occur within their factories.”

Safety agreements, she added, must also be “driven by the needs of workers” through the “credible involvement” of local unions and worker organizations, especially when it comes to oversight and governance. “With neither of these essential components, this new ‘initiative’ will do nothing but provide a mechanism for brands to pat themselves on the back, while leaving their workers still at risk,” she said.

VF Corp. insists, however, that providing safe workplaces has “always been and remains” a “central” focus. “Leveraging the capabilities of collective initiatives, such as the LABS initiative, is another opportunity to advance workplace safety for workers across our supply chain,” a spokesperson said. “We are proud to see the expansion of LABS into another sourcing country, Cambodia.”

IDH declined to respond to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s assertions. Gap, Target and Walmart did not answer emails requesting comment.

The apparel sector is Cambodia’s largest employer with roughly 800,000 mostly female workers. Europe, its biggest customer, receives roughly 40 percent of the country’s clothing exports, which rose by 15.2 percent year over year to $11.38 billion in 2021. In the first quarter of 2022, the country exported $3.15 million in garment products, up 25 percent year over year.

Cambodia’s government has been investing in the sector in earnest as part of its five-year garment, footwear and travel goods strategy to improve its environmental sustainability and value. The Council for the Development of Cambodia said earlier this month that the nation approved 52 fixed-asset investment projects worth $2.46 billion in the first four months of 2022 that are expected to generate over 47,000 jobs, most of them garment-related.