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A tailor-made future for prosperity: Cambodia

Article | 09 November 2004

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia - In a makeshift, one-room hut balanced on stilts, Sok Keng helps her four brothers and sisters get ready for the day. Outside, the driving, unrelenting rain has already flooded the kitchen, a modest area on the ground floor next to the animal's pen. The rainy season has arrived.

From this tiny village perched on a cliff above a rock quarry, you can see the ships loading and unloading containers in the picturesque port of Sihanoukville. The ever-increasing traffic tells people that prosperity is coming to this quiet corner of the world. The process of globalization is transforming this town each and every day.

But life in this village is still characterized by back-breaking work in the stone quarry or the fast-paced but tedious work in the numerous textile factories that have sprung up over the past few years. No one complains about the work because everyone here knows that poverty is just a pay check away.

Three years ago, life was so desperate that Sok Keng had falsified documents so that she could obtain work at a local textile factory. She had hoped that her work would ease the strain of poverty on her family as well as help pay the school fees for her brothers.

As soon as she started working labour inspectors visited the factory and noticed Sok Keng and checked her papers. They quickly found out that she had only just turned 14 years old. Under current Cambodian law, the minimum working age is 15 years.

Instead of fining the employer and tossing the young girl out, the International Labour Organization (ILO) worked with the employer to provide Sok Keng with vocational training as a seamstress, skills she would need in this sector for her future employment. And exceptionally, the employer agreed to pay a stipend to off-set the loss of earnings for the family.

"The first time when I came to the Vocational Training Centre I was scared. I could not read or write. But my teacher took care of me and so did my older friends: they taught me to read and write and sew. Now I can make suits", beamed Sok Keng.

This strategy of working with employers and Government agencies has been extremely successful for Cambodia's textile sector, which has grown from a modest US$120 million industry into a major contributor to export earnings now with over US$1.6 billion in annual revenues. The US-Cambodian Bilateral Textile Agreement, signed in 1999, provided access to the lucrative US market and has fostered this tremendous growth.

However, the increase in Cambodia's export entitlements to the US markets is contingent upon demonstrable improvements in the application of labour law and standards. The trade agreement refers specifically to the implementation of a programme to improve working conditions in the textile and apparel sector.

The impetus for many of these initiatives comes from the ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which provide a broad framework for labour-management relations to assist both the employers and the workers.

With funding from the United States Department of Labour (USDOL), the ILO has established a set of unique technical cooperation projects that combine independent monitoring, training and technical advisory services to assist workers and employers in improving working conditions themselves. Additionally, these projects assist the government, employers and workers in strengthening their dispute resolution system and encouraging the development of alternative, voluntary dispute resolution mechanisms.

These projects help Cambodian factories to compete effectively in a global marketplace, where there is intense consumer pressure for quality goods made by workers who are treated well. Since these projects started, a number of international buyers have returned to Cambodia.

Soun Ratana, a compliance officer at one of the factories working with the ILO, believes the changes have been good for business. "I am happy that the buyers learn about us from ILO. I receive a lot more orders now for our products by e-mail."

Even the factory's management is pleasantly surprised by the results. "You have to look at it from both sides. From one point of view, we're doing the right thing. We're trying to improve their life style. On the other hand, if you look at it from a strictly economic point of view, our productivity has gone up", stated the Director of one factory participating in the ILO programme.

The Government has requested that all factories exporting goods from Cambodia give ILO monitors full access to factory premises, whether the visit is announced or not. Monitors speak freely with union representatives and workers, both inside and outside the factory, and with the factory's management. Monitors visit the factories in pairs and review issues ranging from noise and heat levels and the calculation of overtime pay, to the use of child labour and violations of freedom of association.

In the past few years, a great deal of progress has been made in almost every factory. The monitoring process is helping the employers and workers to produce a safer working environment with better working conditions and raise productivity as well as boost the credibility of the Cambodian factories with international buyers.

Recently, the monitors have reported to the Government that child labour is virtually non-existent in the factories that are participating in this programme. For an industry that employs over 200,000 workers and accounts for 80 per cent of the countries exports, it is an admirable achievement.

Even though the process of globalization has provided many benefits in such a short period of time, it can also pose some significant challenges to a country that is finally enjoying its first few years of peace after 30 years of warfare. The country faces major challenges to growth such as poor education and a deficit of productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure.

The continued strength of the textile industry, as well as an increasing number of visitors to Cambodia for tourism, will be vital as Cambodia tries to develop a private sector that can create enough jobs to address Cambodia's demographic imbalance. With about 60 per cent of the population 20 years or younger, many people will be entering the workforce over the next 10 years.

For Sok Keng, who is now 17 years old, life is full of possibilities. She now works a full-time job at a new factory making tablecloths and napkins for Western tables. Her job, which is highly sought after because the pay and benefits are better than other local jobs, gives her hope.

"In the future, when I get married, I'll have children. I want them to learn more than just sewing", said Sok Keng with a twinkle in her eye.