Will Cambodia’s garment sector rebound after ‘horror year’?

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L on Vanna has been working across the clock for months however she doesn’t sew garments anymore – she guards the machines within the deserted garment manufacturing facility in Cambodia the place she as soon as labored.

Vanna believes the stitching machines are her solely hope for saving her residence and land, which she put up as collateral for a mortgage to feed herself and her ailing mother and father after the brand new coronavirus pandemic shuttered the manufacturing facility in March.

“These machines are my cash; they’re my life,” Vanna mentioned, pledging to carry them hostage till she receives about $2,000 in wages and bonuses owed since bosses shut the manufacturing facility, some 50km south of the capital, Phnom Penh, unannounced.

“We solely know the best way to sew garments,” she mentioned, sat amongst half a dozen former staff who guard the manufacturing facility across the clock, and in August chased away males despatched by the manufacturing facility house owners to retrieve the machines.

“However we see no hope within the trade, solely shut downs and sackings, so we will’t surrender.”

Cambodia’s $7 billion garment sector – the nation’s largest employer with 800,000, largely feminine, staff – was dealt a double blow this yr by the coronavirus pandemic and by European Union (EU) tariffs imposed over human rights abuses.

Some Cambodian exports misplaced duty-free entry to the EU in August because the bloc signalled its discontent over the Southeast Asian nation’s crackdown on opposition, civil society and the media.

Onerous-won labour rights have additionally been rolled again this yr within the garment trade, staff’ advocates say, because the virus has fuelled ‘union-busting’ at factories and poorer wages and situations for these nonetheless in a job.

Cambodia has rolled out some help for laid off garment staff, however staff and advocates say it has been inadequate and troublesome to entry.

Labour ministry spokesman Heng Suor instructed the Thomson Reuters Basis that the method of making use of for monetary assist was “not exhausting in any respect … so long as the manufacturing facility information for suspension correctly”.

Horror yr

Throughout the growing world, tens of millions of staff in garment provide chains had been laid off and left unpaid in 2020 because the pandemic pummeled the worldwide trend trade.

Cambodian staff are owed greater than $120 million in unpaid wages for the primary three months of the pandemic alone, based on advocacy group Labour Behind the Label, describing it as a “mounting humanitarian disaster.”

Exports to the EU – normally value round $5.5 billion a yr – dipped by nearly $1 billion within the first 9 months of 2020.

World manufacturers, together with Adidas and Levi Strauss, had urged Cambodia to reform and drop prison prices in opposition to union leaders however Prime Minister Hun Sen, in energy for 35 years, mentioned the nation wouldn’t “bow down” to overseas calls for.

Bent Gehrt, Southeast Asia subject director for U.S.-based Employee Rights Consortium monitoring group, described 2020 as a “horror yr for garment staff”.

“The nation’s efficiency on labour rights has deteriorated so severely that it has turn out to be a advertising and marketing legal responsibility for the nation as a producer and elevated manufacturers’ reputational danger,” he mentioned.

Poised to rebound

Opinions are blended over the trade’s future.

No less than 110 factories have shut completely as a result of lack of orders and the destiny of scores extra stays unknown, mentioned Ken Bathroom, a consultant for manufacturing facility house owners, including that the scenario will turn out to be clearer when 2021 membership charges are due.

Bathroom mentioned Cambodia’s garment trade is well-placed to rebound as exports to the US have surged in 2020, greater than 60 new factories have registered, and Cambodia has far fewer coronavirus circumstances than different Asian manufacturing hubs.

Whereas India has recorded nearly 10 million infections, the second highest globally after the US, and Myanmar greater than 100,000 circumstances, Cambodia has had lower than 400 circumstances and no deaths, a tally by Johns Hopkins College exhibits.

“Take a look at the options – Myanmar, for instance, the place Covid is uncontrolled,” mentioned the Bathroom, secretary-general on the Garment Producers Affiliation in Cambodia.

“This will likely be an element for traders sooner or later.”

Bathroom mentioned he was additionally optimistic about commerce with Britain after the completion of its transition out of the EU on Dec. 31, which is able to carry an finish to EU tariffs and permit Cambodia to export to Britain duty-free.

“I don’t say it’s going to make up your entire distinction … however I don’t assume we’re in a worse place,” he mentioned.


However trend large H&M, which has about 50 factories in Cambodia, mentioned sourcing in Cambodia had turn out to be “problematic” due to elevated tariffs, labour rights and environmental considerations, notably its current heavy funding in coal.

“Manufacturing international locations that proceed to see coal as a viable vitality supply for the longer term may doubtlessly lose out on future investments,” H&M’s Cambodia nation supervisor Christer Horn Af Aminne mentioned.

In the meantime, for Cambodians who do have work, competitors has pushed down situations and unionists proceed to be focused, mentioned Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Commerce Unions.

“Final month alone, we organised two new native unions in factories and our leaders at each have already been topic to both threats of, or precise, dismissal,” she mentioned.

Cambodia’s garment staff are as a result of obtain a $2 rise within the minimal wage to $192 per 30 days in January – nonetheless under the dwelling wage of $588 calculated by the Asia Flooring Wage Alliance, a provide chain foyer group.

The ladies guarding the stitching machines at Vanna’s former manufacturing facility, every owed a couple of hundred to a couple thousand {dollars}, mentioned they’d little else to do and wouldn’t be leaving.

“I’ve offered my bike now, so I can’t go anyplace,” Hoeun Toeuth, 38, mentioned from behind a face masks.

“However we nonetheless have rice, and we are going to wrestle till the tip – that is the lifetime of the employee.”

(This story has been revealed from a wire company feed with out modifications to the textual content.)

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