Cambodia and big brands fail to tackle garment worker abuse: researchers

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cambodian garment workers making clothing for international retailers are frequently abused and exploited at work and neither the government nor major brands are doing to enough to protect them, researchers said on Thursday. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said that despite strong labor laws, Cambodia is failing to protect workers involved in the global garment supply chain. HRW identified lax enforcement of labor laws and a failure by retailers to ensure monitoring and compliance, in particular at sub-contractor factories, with workers reporting being forced to do overtime and being sacked for being pregnant. The report comes as wage protests, mass fainting of employees, and burdensome union registration procedures have focused attention on the plight of workers in the largely foreign-owned industry, which provides more than half a million jobs and generates $5 billion annually. "The Cambodian government should take swift measures to reverse its terrible record in enforcing its labor laws and protect workers from abuse," said Aruna Kashyap, HRW's senior women's rights researcher and author of the 140-page report. A government spokesman said the government had been working with buyers, contractors and unions to resolve labor rights issues. "The royal government has been addressing these issues, and we don't encourage forced labor or other labor abuses," spokesman Phay Siphan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The report highlighted unlawful discrimination against pregnant women, citing cases of females being dismissed, demoted and having their pay cut when they became visibly pregnant. Women, who make up about 90 percent of the industry's estimated 700,000 workers, also told HRW of both physical and verbal sexual harassment by managers and male colleagues. The report said many international clothing and footwear brands had failed to promote workers' rights because of poor supply chain transparency, the absence of protection for whistleblowers and a failure to help factories correct problems. "These global apparel brands are household names," Kashyap said. "They have a lot of leverage, and can and should do more to ensure their contracts with garment factories are not contributing to labor rights abuses." In interviews with 270 workers from 73 factories, HRW found many factories repeatedly issued short-term contracts to avoid paying workers maternity and other benefits, and to make it easier to fire them. Workers also experienced retaliation, including dismissal, pay cuts or transfers to piece-work wages if they refused to work overtime. British retailer Marks & Spencer was one of the companies named in the report but stressed that all its suppliers are regularly audited. "As a condition of working with us, all our suppliers, wherever they are in the world, must adhere to our strict ethical standards and are audited regularly by third party, independent auditors," a spokesman said by email. (Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Editing by Tim Pearce)