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Workers Collapsing While Making Your H&M Clothes and Puma Shoes: Where's the Mass Outcry?

70 percent of the clothing made in Cambodia is sold in the United States--where's the Foxconn-style outrage over atrocious conditions for garment workers?

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How far the GMAC, the lobbying organization of the nation's fast-growing garment sector, or the Cambodian government itself, might go to protect its "sweatshop-free" status is an open question.

Continued Unrest

Protests around issues raised in the aftermath of the mass faintings continue. Workers at M&V tried to organize in October, the Phnom Penh Post reported, and some were fired, illegally, for trying to join a union. The $5 health bonus that went into effect in the beginning of the year, intended to incentivize regular meals, also inspired strikes. Workers, confused about the distribution of the bonus and concerned about other pay withholdings, went on strike January 3. Thousands have joined rallies in response to issues raised by recent inspections and reported. Police response is becoming increasingly violent.

Then, last month, a protest at Kaoway Sports, Ltd., another supplier for Puma in Bavet City, in the southeast Svay Rieng district, ended in gunfire. The rally - human rights groups list as many as 6,000 in attendance, although officials claimed a more modest 1,000 - called for a $10 raise to the monthly minimum wage and aimed to highlight unfair workplace conditions. On February 20, a man in a guard uniform opened fire, but despite heavy police presence, escaped from the scene undetected. Three workers were injured. One was reportedly shot in the chest and coughing up blood, according to the Deutsche-Press Agentur.

The only suspect in the shootings was Bavet City Gov. Chhuk Bundith. He was publicly removed from his post by Prime Minister Hun Sen, then went into hiding, according to RFA. On March 9, the station reported, in a document co-signed by Gap, H&M, American Eagle Outfitters, and other big-name brands, Puma sent a letter urging the government to investigate the matter.

Chhuk Bundith was summoned to court a few days later, although not arrested. "He confessed to the shooting, but he gave me many reasons for that," Hing Bun Chea, the Svay Rieng provincial prosecutor, told the Post on March 16.

The injured women are bringing a suit against Chhuk Bundith and Hing Bun Chea has agreed to meet with them to hear details of their case. The women say Chhuk Bundith attempted to buy off their silence and others have argued that the government continues to shield him from the law. The original meeting, set for March 28, was canceled because the prosecutor was "busy," the Post reported on March 29.

It's enough to make you give up and fall, seemingly lifeless, to the floor.

Solutions

In February, the advocacy group Asian Floor Wage Campaign put on the first-ever People's Tribunal on the Asia Minimum Floor Wage. The organization describes its mission as to lay "a floor under the race to the bottom and end wage competition in Asia and the extreme exploitation of women workers." The organization's pan-Asian approach overlooks that the rivalry among Asian - or even Southeast Asian - nations is what brings the industry there in the first place, and it's easy to see where countries with more labor law violations or lower wages than Cambodia would take precedence. Yet, the organization is calling for the addition of a labor cost to the price buyers pay for goods to meet living-wage levels - an excellent place to begin stopping leaks on this Titanic.

In country, the BFC will continue worker education and media campaigns, based on the success of its 2011 Garment Worker Open University, a similar daylong labor law workshop for managers, and 2010's "At the Factory Gates," a televised soap opera about garment workers' legal rights. "BFC will run many activities to raise awareness of workers' health and safety," communications officer Ying Bun told me over email. He described a mobile phone project - "in which workers can call in to seek for information about safety and health conditions" - a concession to the cell phones most own, made cheap by intense competition in the emerging Cambodian telecommunications market.

 
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