A damning report into Cambodian factories supplying brands such as Marks and Spencer, Gap, Adidas and H&M, has revealed alleged cases of child labour, forced overtime and aggressive anti-union discrimination.
The investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW) into labour conditions in 73 factories for the report ‘Work Faster or Get Out’, interviewed 270 workers as well as a number of IndustriALL Global Union’s eight garment affiliates in Cambodia, government officials, labour rights activists, and the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC).
The report accuses brands of failing to protect and promote workers’ rights at both direct and indirect suppliers in their supply chains. It also criticizes brands for a lack of whistleblower protection and pulling the plug on factories where there were problems rather than correcting them, putting workers jobs at jeopardy and making it less likely for labour violations to be reported.
Human Rights Watch also found wide scale abuse of short-term contracts, which are unlawfully used by employers to make it easier to fire and control workers, avoid paying maternity or other benefits, and discourage union participation or formation.
“The report is further evidence that so-called corporate social responsibility practices, which only serve to polish brands' reputations, are failing to prevent abuse of workers,” says Jyrki Raina, general secretary of IndustriALL.
“New approaches are urgently needed and IndustriALL is working hard to make the global garment industry safe and sustainable. The HRW report shows we still have a long way to go.”
The report also singles out Marks and Spencer, Gap and Joe Fresh (Loblaw) for its secrecy about suppliers, making it difficult to monitor labour conditions in those factories.
Workers at both contractor and sub-contracting factories reported being threatened by factory managers with contract dismissal or wage reductions if they sought exemption from overtime. Beyond the standard 48-hour week, overtime in Cambodia is legally limited to an extra two hours a day (12 hours a week). However, most of the workers interviewed did overtime far exceeding this 12-hour weekly limit.
Pressure to meet production targets meant workers found it difficult to go the bathroom, rest or drink water. Some said they were physically intimidated for being ‘slow’.
Discrimination against women
Workers reported that they were sacked for being pregnant and not having their contracts renewed.
“They would call workers in and would get upset when they found out someone was pregnant and then they would fire those who were pregnant,” said Nheoum Soya, a worker in Phnom Penh. “I decided to abort my baby so that I could go back to work, so that I could be a good worker and maybe they would be happy with me.”
Factory managers also failed to make allowances for pregnant women such as more frequent bathroom breaks and harassed pregnant women for being unproductive.
Sexual harassment was found to be common in the form of sexual comments and advances, and inappropriate touching and pinching from managers and male co-workers.
Human Rights Watch found evidence of union-busting activity in at least 35 factories in Cambodia since 2012. This included keeping workers on short-term contracts, dismissing or harassing newly elected union representatives, and encouraging pro-management unions.
Trade unions said that as soon as workers tried to organize, factory management would dismiss union office-bearers or coerce or bribe them into resigning to prevent union formation.
Conditions at subcontractors were usually found to be worse. In these factories, workers said they were forced to work for less than the minimum wage, received no maternity pay and in some cases, had been made to work Sundays and public holidays without extra overtime. At these factories, workers said they were afraid of forming or joining a union.
More alarmingly, some workers said that subcontractor factory where they worked employed children and hid them when there visitors. In a factory subcontracting for H&M, children below the legal age of 15 were made to work as hard as the adults.
Failure of government accountability
Human Rights Watch cited the Cambodian government’s “abysmal” enforcement of the country’s strong labour law. It spoke to two former labour inspectors who independently talked of an “envelope system” where factory managers paid bribes to visiting inspectors in exchange for favourable reports.
Of the thousands of inspections conducted between January 2009 and December 2013, only ten fines were imposed on factories violating labour inspections, according to government data.
In 2014, Cambodia’s garment exports totaled US$ 5.7 billion, with women making up an estimated 90 to 92 per cent of the industry’s 700,000 workers.