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Promoting better work in global supply chains: Cambodian garment workers show talent

Better Factories Cambodia, a joint initiative of the ILO and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, is often cited as an example of how closer links between the two organizations can improve labour practices and competitiveness in global supply chains. But workers also have their own talents, as shown during a recent song contest organized among garment workers. ILO Online reports.

Article | 02 May 2008

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (ILO Online) – “The car was heard leaving home, heading for Phnom Penh. I sadly said goodbye to my parents, hoping to return home with money for my mother”, go the opening words of the song “I am precious” that won first prize at a recent song and dress-making contest here.

But the winner wasn’t a regional song contest entry. Rather, she was Touch Sreynith, a garment worker writing about the journey from her home town to work in Phnom Penh and find a new future.

The contest was organized jointly by the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) programme, the International Finance Cooperation (IFC), the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Precious Girl Magazine (whose readership focuses on garment workers), the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, the French Development Agency and the Garment Industry Productivity Center.

“The competition successfully brought together key players in the industry”, says Tuomo Poutiainen, Chief Technical Advisor for BFC. “This is a good example of effective collaboration showing that by working together we can do something positive and valuable for the Cambodian garment workers.”

Indeed, the recent contest was more than just a stage for garment workers to display their hidden talents. It shows how the garment industry has evolved along lines that improve productivity and marketing as well as working conditions.

An International Buyers’ Forum in Phnom Penh last September, convened by BFC and the IFC, underscores these developments. According to Ros Harvey, the Global Programme Manager for the ILO and IFC Better Work programme, the Buyers’ Forum provided a chance for “all stakeholders in the industry to get together and discuss matters concerning the Better Factories initiative as well as broader industry issues. The Forum is an opportunity for international buyers to meet together with government, suppliers and unions. Together we can work on shared solutions. The Forum also allows Cambodia to promote itself to new buyers”.

This year, the Forum saw the attendance of 17 international garment brands, represented by 43 retailers, most of which are members of the Better Factories programme. Buyers came mainly from the US and Europe, including Adidas, Gap, H&M, Wal-Mart, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Walt Disney Company.

Buyers announced that they would continue to source their garments from Cambodia for the upcoming year. This announcement is welcome news for Cambodia’s garment industry, which employs over 340,000 people in around 300 factories. The industry has been fearful of losing market share in 2008 if the US decides to remove quotas on Chinese imports. This would threaten Cambodia’s 2006 position as the fifth-largest supplier to the US, with a total global export value at $2.6 billion.

At the same time, buyers underlined that the existence of the Better Factories programme and its emphasis on working conditions and productivity were major reasons behind them choosing to work with Cambodia. They affirmed the need for strong support for BFC as it goes through the transition period towards sustainability as an independent entity in the near future.

BFC provides benefits to industry and society

So far, the hopes of the industry and its workers have not been deceived, or as the author of the winning song puts it: “Mother, stay home and don’t worry. My life is valuable. Factory work is not shameful; it provides benefits to society”.

According to Ros Harvey, “this is not surprising. The ILO’s Better Factories programme in Cambodia has led to verified improvements in working conditions across the Cambodian garment industry, the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs and sustained increases in exports to the United States and the European Union”.

During a recent address to the ILO Governing Body in Geneva on growing links with the ILO, World Bank President Robert Zoellick expanded this theme, saying that Better Factories Cambodia has helped “to improve labour practices and competitiveness in the global supply chain”. He cited a number of areas of joint concern to the Bank and the ILO, including developing skills, helping workers adjust to change and expanding efforts on gender issues and that the Bank and the ILO were joining forces in such programmes as the Better Work initiative.

Based on the positive results of Better Factories Cambodia, Better Work, a joint ILO-IFC initiative is now developing global tools and piloting three country projects, in Jordan, Lesotho and Viet Nam with the full cooperation of workers’ and employers’ organizations. The project combines enterprise assessments of compliance with labour standards at the factory level, with training and capacity building. The first phase directly benefits 1.2 million working people with the potential for reaching millions more.