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Cambodia’s Human Rights Face Pressure as Companies Reconsider Sourcing There

Cambodia’s labor and human rights controversies are seeing increased scrutiny from U.S. industry and could threaten its growth as a key apparel and footwear supplier.

This week, a coalition of industry organizations–the American Apparel & Footwear Association, amfori, Ethical Trading Initiative, Fair Labor Association, Fair Wear Foundation and Social Accountability International–sent a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urging the government to take action on labor rights and human rights.

“We write to express our growing concern over recent developments that not only seem to undermine progress towards improving worker rights, but also appear to have created an environment that has weakened protection of human rights,” the coalition wrote. “As such, we also urge your government to guarantee respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to provide full protection of all human rights defenders in your country.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council, endorsed by 45 nations including the U.S., issued a statement Wednesday urging improvements in Cambodia’s rights situation ahead of a general election this July, according to multiple media outlets. The joint statement expressed “deep concern about the recent serious decline of civil and political rights in Cambodia,” and said “these backward steps include signs of escalating repression of the political opposition, civil society and media.”

Ney Sam Ol, Cambodia’s ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva, on Thursday called the statement “politically motivated,” according to the Associated Press. He said the signatories backed the statement “because they want regime change, because they have their pre-selected candidates to win,” and that “they shamelessly interfere in this country’s internal affairs.”

There were also reports this week that VF Corp. was looking to increase its sourcing in the Southeast Asian country, which the company said were misleading and inaccurate.

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In response to an inquiry, VF issued a statement to Sourcing Journal that said: “VF’s message to the Cambodian government is clear. Cambodia is an important sourcing country for VF. However, we are concerned with the Cambodian government’s recent actions that seem to undermine progress toward improving worker rights and appear to have created an environment that has weakened the protection of human rights.”

“VF expects its contract suppliers, regardless of country, to operate with high standards that ensure workers are treated fairly, enjoy freedom of association and work in safe environments,” the company said, “Actions by any government or entity that jeopardize our sourcing partners’ ability to meet our standards is unacceptable. We have shared this position and our expectations with many Cambodian government officials, including a letter sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen.”

In its letter, the coalition noted that thanks to Sen’s “strong leadership and foresight, you have transformed a mere $27 million garment industry in 1995 into a $6.3 billion industry employing over 650,000 workers. Part of the reason behind this success is that you saw the value of developing a world-class workforce and therefore embraced initiatives to improve working conditions for those 650,000 workers.”

The groups said the government’s establishment of the Labor Advisory Council has provided a foundation for transparency and stakeholder participation, and introduced certainty to the annual minimum wage review. Last year, the country recently approved an 11 percent wage hike that brought garment workers’ average wages to $170 a month starting in January.

In this regard, the letter said, “Defined minimum wage and its regular review via an inclusive consultative process is not a threat to Cambodia’s competitiveness. In fact, the opposite is true: restrictions on minimum wage discussions and lack of freedom of association will make Cambodia an unattractive and expensive place to do business because of increased reputational risks for brands sourcing from Cambodia, regular social unrest at workplaces (which is a great extra cost to brands) and potential trade tariffs (if the situation does not improve).”

The coalition said it applauded the October announcement by the Ministry of Labor that it would address many such as the draft minimum wage law, the draft dispute settlement law and the current trade union law, but what it wasn’t applauding is what’s happened since then.

“Five months have passed with little progress in your government fulfilling those commitments,” the groups said. “Therefore, we urge your government to quickly and fully implement the commitments made in the…announcement.”

Those commitments include a revision of the draft Law on Minimum Wage to allow for independent research on minimum wage and to open it up for further discussion, to allow minority unions to represent members in collective labor disputes, to organize national workshops to review and adjust the union registration procedure to make it more transparent and effective. The coalition also wants Cambodia to guarantee the rights and freedoms of professional organizations in the country, and to promote cooperation with international organizations and other partners to improve and strengthen industrial relations in factories and enterprises.

“Stability of industrial relations guarantees timely supply and ensures the reputation of Cambodian textile and footwear product, which is a clean-source product and in full compliance with international labor standards,” the letter noted.

The groups urged the government to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of arrested human rights defenders in Cambodia, put an end to all forms of harassment, including at the judicial level, against all human rights defenders in the country, and guarantee the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and other international human rights accords signed or ratified by Cambodia.

“Mr. Prime Minister, our members–Cambodia’s buyers–have valued a long and mutually beneficial relationship with your country. As a result of this relationship, and the efforts of your government, your country has flourished into one of the leading suppliers of garments, and one of the fastest-growing suppliers of footwear and travel goods to the world,” the letter concluded. “We remain concerned, therefore, that lack of action to quickly resolve these issues, which are critical to our members as well as to Cambodian people, could jeopardize this tremendous success story.”

Cambodia’s apparel and textile imports to the U.S. increased 22.87% to $226.88 million in January.