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Regulation

Cambodia advised to mend its textile industry

Cambodian garment factories have been advised to check the structural soundness of all of their buildings after sections of buildings at separate factories collapsed this month killing two workers and injuring dozens.

The advice came in a letter from the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO), whose Better Factories Cambodia program monitors more than 400 exporting factories, and the Garment Manufacturers' Association in Cambodia (GMAC), a trade group that represents factory owners.

The letter said this month's "devastating and unprecedented" accidents had put the integrity of Cambodia's garment industry at stake.

"We believe that it is in the interest of all to take steps to prevent more such accidents happening in the Cambodian garment and footwear industry," the two organizations wrote.

Some factories have already said they will comply, but the ILO stresses it has no power to compel factories to act.

"This letter that we've sent has been sent on by lots of buyers to their suppliers," says ILO technical adviser Jason Judd. "The leverage for change in these factories rests first with those buyers but ultimately with the Cambodian government."

Cambodian soldiers walk over a pile on materials after a factory collapsed in Kampong Speu province, some 50 kilometers west of Phnom Penh on May 16, 2013. (Photo: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

A ceiling collapsed at a shoe factory on May 16, killing at least two workers

Judd notes that buyers or brands "wield considerable influence" over factories, and says factories that are pushed are more likely to check the soundness of their buildings.

GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo reckons most of his members - 403 garment factories and 42 shoe factories - will carry out structural integrity checks, which the letter recommends they do "as soon as possible."

"It's not about when factories need to do it by," says Loo, adding that factories first need to find reliable inspectors and then determine how long and how disruptive the checks will be. "It's more like: Look, this is an area that if you are a member you should be concerned about. And therefore they should pay attention."

Booming business

The garment-manufacturing sector has boomed in Cambodia over the past decade and is now an economic pillar employing 400,000 people. Last year garment exports earned the country $4.6 billion. Most were sent to the EU and the US.

However the recent disaster in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,100 workers died in a building collapse, has put the spotlight squarely on working conditions in the global industry.

Despite the central position garment manufacturing holds in Cambodia's economy, and the reputational risk should it suffer a Bangladesh-style disaster, the response of the government to systematic breaches of the law by factories has been weak.

Dave Welsh, the country director at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), a workers' rights group, says the government "often complains, unacceptably in my view, that [its inspectors] are denied access to the factories or that their findings aren't enforced."

Welsh says that particularly with issues of worker safety, the government must act.

"If the government's findings aren't being enforced by the owners of the factories, then those owners should not be allowed to operate," he says.

Smoke rises from a two-storied garment factory after a fire swept through it in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Saturday, Jan.26, 2013. (Photo:A.M. Ahad/AP/dapd)

Locked fire escapes have led to the death of many textile workers, especially in Bangladesh

The government maintains that it does pay full attention to worker safety. Oum Mean, secretary of state of the Ministry of Labor, says the inspectors from his ministry - while not responsible for checking building structures - are permanently engaged on the issue. Factories that are safe, he says, will benefit and those that are not will lose out.

"We do everything to ensure the safety of workers, and the factories should not be careless in the future," Oum Mean says.

But responsibility goes further than the government and the factories. The brands that source from Cambodia - among them Gap, H&M, WalMart, Nike and Adidas - have the clout to insist that the factories with which they place orders fix the problems uncovered by BFC's monitors, yet it is clear that some factories aren't bothering and are getting away with it.

"Brands have to make sure that the factories they are sourcing from are up to spec," says Welsh, adding that all stakeholders must be more proactive, particularly on health and safety.

A recent BFC report noted that fire safety standards had worsened dramatically at the 136 factories surveyed: 14 percent of factories now lock their fire exits, up from just 1 percent two years ago. And 41 percent do not hold fire drills every six months - that in an industry with a 20-percent staff turnover rate.

Welsh says "disasters are waiting to happen," but can easily be avoided.

Better Factories - not good enough

The industry spotlight has also resulted in a raft of changes to the ILO's Better Factories Cambodia monitoring program, which started in 2001.

But the lack of negative publicity for factories (and brands) that ignored monitors' findings meant that after 2006 there was little incentive for them to act. Recent criticisms of the BFC program have seen the ILO reassess its opaque process. It promises greater transparency even at the risk of damaging its relations with the Cambodian government.

A Cambodian garment worker speaks on a loud speaker as she leads a strike in front of a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Sept. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Cambodians demand improved working conditions for textile workers

The ILO's Judd says the revised program, whose changes will likely come into effect later this year, will include public disclosure "to drive improvements in factories that are chronic violators of the law, and on critical issues such as fire safety and unacceptable forms of work."

"We hope that public disclosure of factory names can lead to greater improvements, but responsibility for these changes still lies with factory management, the Cambodian industry, buyers, and the Royal Government of Cambodia," he says.

Welsh of the workers' rights group ACILS welcomes the news.

"You'd be forgiven if you lived outside Cambodia [for thinking] that because the ILO is monitoring factories that something's being done on those findings - where the reality is quite the opposite," he says of the backsliding since 2006.

To date, he adds, the brands have benefited from "the illusion that monitoring is actually enforcing corrective measures on what's being monitored and what's being found when that's not in fact the case."

Any move towards greater transparency will be an improvement, Welsh says, "because frankly the stakeholders have been getting that information up to this point [but] haven't been taking corrective measures or have been doing it insufficiently."

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