A guidance for businesses with suppliers in low-income countries
A report comprised of studies and materials from a variety of actors working in the area of implementing a living wage. The toolkit for living wage presented here has been compiled by Fair Trade Center and has been inspired by the ongoing discussion.
Executive summar by Fair Trade Center, Report by Fair Trade Center, 2015
Many workers in low-income countries dream of wages that are sufficient to support themselves and their families. The situation for workers in countries such as Cambodia, India and Bangladesh are desperate and legal minimum wages, which purchasing companies often refer to, usually lie far below a living wage.
According to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies are responsible for respecting human rights in their supply chains. Despite this, there are few purchasing companies working progressively with the issue of living wage in their supply chain.
The aim of this report is to demonstrate that the dream of a living wage can be reality. The report presents how companies can contribute to a positive impact in the wage-setting among their suppliers, in part through their own purchasing methods, but also through creating
conditions for increased workers’ participation. In the report, Fair Trade Center (FTC) presents a toolkit with various tools for living wage. FTC also analyzes the work of companies Marks & Spencer (M&S), Switcher and Tchibo for living wages. The selection of companies are based on the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC)-report Tailored Wages where these companies were among the highest ranked. The companies work with the issue of living wages with their suppliers, using both tools for purchasing and tools for increased workers’ participation. As methods for living wage are under development, FTC sees the work of the selected companies as interesting efforts to approach the issue, not as holistic strategies for living wages.
Purchasing from suppliers in low-income countries is impacted by different factors to achieve living wages. In order for efforts for living wages to have as great an impact as possible, companies need to combine different tools with these factors in mind.
Fair Trade Center recommends companies to:
Denne udgivelse er en udregnings-hjælp til brands, der ønsker at sikre, at arbejderne på deres leverandørfabrikker som minimum tjener en leveløn.
Rapport Labour Minute Costing - A tool for establishing living wage floors in garment factories af Fair Wear Foundation, resume af Magnus Bundgaard Nielsen
Den er opbygget som en solid metodisk guide til hvordan levelønsniveauet og tøjbrandets samlede omkostninger kan udregnes og anvendes i praksis.
Guiden præsenterer konkrete regneeksempler, der kan overføres direkte til egen produktionskæde. Guiden udregner brandets samlede omkostninger, og tager hensyn til, at prisstigningen skal fordeles mellem alle fabrikkens kunder, og hvordan det gøres uden at EUs konkurrenceregler brydes.
Den primære målgruppe er derfor tøjvirksomheder, men forhåbentlig vil rapporten også være relevant for fagforeninger og fabriksejere.
Hvem er Fair Wear Foundation?
Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) har til formål at give tøjvirksomheder og producenter anvendelige værktøjer til at sikre, at arbejderne får en løn, de kan leve af og anstændige arbejdsforhold.
FWFs udgivelser skal betragtes som en værktøjskasse, som adresserer de mange forskellige problemer, som plager den globale tøjindustri. Fokus ligger på produktionsleddet, da langt de fleste arbejdstimer lægges her.
FWF er et samarbejde mellem NGO’er erhvervsorganisationer, fagbevægelse, virksomheder og producenter.
The garment industry is the largest sector of the Cambodian economy, representing Cambodia’s biggest export with an industry employing hundreds of thousands of workers. Like those in Bangladesh, Cambodia’s factories have structural problems while the garment workers suffer inhumane working and living conditions. Striking workers have been protesting repeatedly to demand a decent living wage. Working six days a week, 8 hours a day, they carry a monthly wage of 61 USD, barely enough to meet their basic living expenses. According to the report „Shop ‘Til They Drop” the employees consume around half the calories needed for garment factory work, while protein intake fell well below half the basic human need. The recommended 3,000-calorie diet alone would cost around USD 75 a month. The serious malnourishment of the industry’s over 400,000 people - mostly women and girls - together with poor working conditions have caused numerous incidents of mass faintings and collapses in the factories over recent years.
Text and images by Steffi Eckelmann, 2013
The garment workers I interviewed and photographed for this photo spread are mostly living in rented rooms in a Phnom Penh suburb nearby garment factories producing clothes for international brands. Three to six women share just one room, not bigger than 8 square metres, often even without a window or any fresh air. No furniture, simply plastic sheets on the floor to sleep on, a toilet and portable gas stove with some pots for cooking. It is washing, eating and sleeping in cramped conditions for years. The women share the cost of the room, of water and electricity which sums up to 30-40 USD per person per month.
They are working from 7am until 4pm with one-hour lunch break. Overtime ranges from two to four hours but easily extends to six hours and often includes Sunday work or night shifts particularly during peak season. The extended working hours adversely affects the health and wellbeing of the workers. The list of occupational injuries and illnesses is long and leads from fatigue, stress, depression to general health complaints (headache, stomach ache, nausea, dizziness, chest disease, sore throat, gastrointestinal diseases), to cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic infections and all-cause mortality.
Photography as Activism
My name is Steffi Eckelmann. I am a freelance photographer from Germany, currently living in Munich. Being a photographer means for me using the medium photography to raise awareness about injustice in the world to eventually help making the world a better place. Because of a scholarship I was able to spend 5 months in Cambodia in 2012 supporting different NGOs with my visual skills. One of my greatest concern ever since I read the book „No Logo” by Naomi Klein many years ago has been the working and living conditions of garment workers. All these years, those working conditions have only improved slowly despite all the information appearing in newspapers more and more. It makes me terribly sad and furious. How can people still silently accept, ignore or simply shut their eyes to all these horrible and unbearable facts? Coming across all the articles about mass fainting at Cambodian garment factories last year, I have decided to portray and interview garment workers to raise more awareness for the working conditions in garment factories and the lives they are living. My hope is to get consumers involved and to make them think about their buying habits as well as the connection between the pain of some and the wealth of others. More reflection in the world is needed, more transparency, more understanding as well as critical perspective in order to recognise social injustice and exploitation and to eventually create a change in the world.
The Visual Concept
To do research, I was working closely with two unions in Phnom Penh. One of them was C.CAWDU. I joined several strikes with Athit Kong to document the events and visited a lot of garment workers at their homes. They allowed me to have a look at their living conditions and shared with me about their working conditions. I finally decided on the visual concept of the photo spread. No distraction should allow the viewer of these portraits to drift away with their thoughts, with their involvement, with their sense of guilt. As the working conditions in the garment industry are rather kept in the dark – or at least tried to be kept in the dark –, I decided to bring some stories of garment workers to light. For several Sundays, I was building a small photo studio in one room shared by 4 garment workers and photographed 35 garment workers – all wearing a black t-shirt – against a black background. The worker’s faces were ‘drawn’ in the darkness through light that came from one side. With only a small window providing the room with barely enough fresh air, I could experience how it feels to spend a whole day in an extremely confined and heated space and can finally imagine more precisely how a garment workers’ life outside the factory must be. It was crucial for me to portray these workers with immense respect and dignity as I have the deepest respect for them. The life they face day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year, is one of the toughest. And yet, they all shared a smile with me. The photo spread is not only documenting the inhumane exploitation of garment workers by international brands but at the same time shows a generation of Cambodian workers that the world should pay tribute to. There is no more time to shut one’s eyes and banish from one’s mind.
Miss Nop Saveit is 29 years old and has been working in the garment industry for ten years. Working extensive overtime on a daily basis has always been part of her job since she was 19 as well as a six-day week with only one day off. Nop Saveit is currently a seamstress at „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh. All these years working as a seamstress have had a bearing to Nop Saveit’s health. She is constantly tired and weak and suffers from heavy headaches. On Sundays, when she is not working, she usually travels back to her hometown to see and support her family. She dreams of being married and working as a saleswoman in a small dress shop.
Long Pisey, age 35, started to work as a seamstress when she was 23 years. All these 12 years as a garment worker, she has been struggling to survive with the little money she earns. The excessive heat level in the factory where she is sewing is unbearable for her but she has no choice but to even work overtime. She hopes that one day she will be able to have her own sewing shop. On her day off, she just stays at home, being exhausted. She tries to get some sleep which is sometimes difficult as she shares the room with three other people. One of them is always sick which makes it impossible for the other women in the room to get rest. They have to look after each other and support each other like a family as relatives often live far away.
At the age of 16, Nop Nimol, today 24 years old, moved to Phnom Penh to work as a seamstress. She is currently working in building no. 3. Instead of being forced to meet the almost impossible quota every day and working overtime in a cruelly hot and noisy factory, she would prefer to decorate clothes. On her day off, there is no energy left but to rest lying on the bare floor. She hopes that one day she would be able to buy a small house and have one or two children and a husband. But she is afraid this will just remain a dream.
Sean Raksmey is 22 years old with already seven years of work experience as a seamstress. She is working at the „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh but would rather be a saleswoman selling beautiful dresses. She hopes that the brands will increase the minimum wage as it is really hard for her to cover all her expenses and still send some money home to her family. The only food that she can afford is the one in the street near the factories which is not the healthiest food. On Sundays, when she is not working, she stays at home to rest and do house work.
Miss Roeun Senghak, 22 years old, has been working as a seamstress at the „Neworient Company” in Phnom Penh for three years. She is suffering from strong headache due to the heat and no fresh air while working six days a week. Her living conditions aren’t any better either as she shares a small room without any window with four other women. Yet, on her day off, she stays in her room as she is too exhausted from work. She wants to make as much money as possible as long as she is still young to send it back to her family in need.
Miss Pov Sophar, 25 years old, started to work as a seamstress when she was 19 years old. Ever since she has moved to Phnom Penh to work she misses her family. She would prefer to live close to her hometown and decorate clothes instead of sewing up to 12 hours a day in a hot factory six days a week. Sometimes the women and girls in her factory are not even allowed to take a bathroom break spending the whole shift on their feet. She hopes that one day she will meet her future husband to save her from the job as a seamstress but she is wondering where she will ever meet him. On her day off she is just staying in her room.
At the age of 14, Om Sarorn, today 22 years old, had to start to earn money to support her family. It is eight years now that she has been sewing six to seven days a week at „Marachun”. Every morning she travels 1,5 hours on a truck to Phnom Penh and another 1,5 hours back after a long and exhausting day in the factory. She is always tired and feels weak but still has to help her familiy on the farm on her day off. She hopes that the clothing companies will increase the minimum wage so that she is no longer forced to work extensive overtime to have enough money for her family and herself. If she had a choice she would rather be a saleswoman than a seamstress.
Miss Kay Chantha is 24 years old. She has been sewing at the „Neworient Company” with five years of work experience. Together with five other women, she shares a small room with lack of privacy for each one of them. On her day off, she likes to read a book to banish all sad thoughts about her working and living conditions and dreams of having a family and a farm one day. She loves to work outside with fresh air and not inside a hot and noisy factory with no air conditioning system.
Miss Ren Eim is already 42 years old. For 12 years she has been working as a seamstress and is currently employed by the „Neworient Company”. All these years working in the garment industry have had consequences for Ren Eim’s health. She is suffering from headache and heavy coughing ever since she has started to work as a seamstress. As Ren Eim is already older, she is afraid of getting sick and having no health insurance to cover her needs which is the reason why she is working as much overtime as her health allows it. On her day off, she tries to recover from work as much as possible just staying in her room, which she shares with two other women.
On Phoun, 38 years old, is a seamstress at the „Neworient Company”. For ten years she has been sewing, often working overtime seven days a week. Even though she has learned to live a very basic life, saving money at the end of the month is almost impossible. The more she works, the easier she gets sick and in need of medication, which causes a vicious cycle of debt, poverty and bad health. As most of her colleagues she just takes a rest staying in her room when she is not working. She is sometimes even too exhausted to cook.
Nget Sokvann is 28 years old and has been working as a seamstress at the „Neworient Company” for seven years. Earning a wage of 65 USD makes it almost impossible for her to survive and still contribute an income to her family. She needs to support the education of her younger sister and pay for the treatment of her mother being ill. Feeling dizzy and having a headache while working is something she is used to. She tries not to question her life but just keeps going. Her dream is to just stay at home with her family to take care of them and work on the farm.
Miss Mourng Chanthorn is 27 years old with six years of working experience as a seamstress. She hasn’t given up her dream to have a small shop one day sewing dresses for weddings. She would love to start a business with her sister who is ironing at a garment factory and suffering a lot. She starts to work at 7am working extensive overtime and having no break between 12pm and 9pm. Mourng Chanthorn is worried how much longer her sister will be able to manage this job and life. She hopes that the minimum wage will be increased soon.
Miss Gnel Kimly, 29 years old, feels the devastating effect that 11 years of working as a seamstress have on her health. The poor quality of food she is able to afford due to the little money she earns causes regular stomach aches and problems with her intestines. Enduring the pain is sometimes hard but she has no money left to see a doctor. She is worried about all the young girls starting to work in the garment industry at the age of 14 years or even younger. On her day off, she stays in her small room that she shares with another five seamstress.
Miss Bo Channa, 20 years old, got her first job in the garment industry when she was 18 years old. After only 2 years of working as a seamstress in building no. 3, she is already constantly tired suffering from headache and nausea. On Sundays when she is not working she is just sleeping all day long. She feels no energy left to take any action, meeting friends or family. All these hours in an extremely hot factory, with only little water and strict supervisors controlling every move stresses her to the highest extent. Sometimes she just wants to be on her own but as she is sharing the room with five other women, this is never possible. But hopefully one day, when she is married and living in a nice house, she will find that peace she is longing for every day.
Seven years of sewing have had an unhealthy impact on Sem Chantoeun’s life. At the age of only 26 years she has been constantly suffering from respiratory problems. The temperature in the factory is far from acceptable and the air is full of chemicals. Being exposed to such surroundings between six to seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day is unbearable for Sem Chantoeun. She would love to live a different life with healthy working conditions and a decent wage. She hopes that one day she can have her own little shop with an air conditioning system, no more health problems and with time and energy to meet friends.
Interview: Tola Moeun, head of the Labour Programs at the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC)
Tola Moeun is Cambodia’s public enemy number one – at least in the eyes of many garment manufacturers and politicians. For years now, this legal expert has been supporting workers’ organizations in defending their right to a living wage and decent working conditions. His weapons: the law and the media.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: What does CLEC do to support garment workers in Cambodia?
A: We provide technical and legal support on issues related to labor law and trade union law. We mostly work with local union leaders, NGOs and students, but our trainings are open to all, including human resources managers and civil servants.
We also devote a large part of our work to public awareness on labor issues. For instance, we have set up a weekly radio program focusing on workers problems in garment factories: overtime, maternity leave, contracts, bonuses, union busting, etc. Every Wednesday, workers can call us to express their grievances and ask questions. We compile their questions and our legal experts provide a legal answer on the following week. Every month, we summarize the main issues raised by workers and call officials, MPs or employers to get their reaction live on the radio. Of course, many of them don’t like that. This program is now available in 11 provinces and potentially reaches 4 to 5 million people. It is crucial to reach marginalized workers and analyze the trends in labor law violations.
Q: You are also very active in publishing analyses and providing opinions in newspapers…
A: We are legal experts. Our role is to look at the labor law and its implementation in Cambodia. Based on our research and on workers’ grievances, we submit op-eds and articles to newspapers to inform policy-makers on various problems and solutions. Is the labor law clear enough on short-term contracts? Are there contradictions between the law and the ILO guidelines? What is the legal responsibility of authorities regarding union busting practices? In our publications and media activities, we never express our personal opinion. We only focus on a legal perspective. That’s probably why we are considered “troublemakers” in some influential circles…
Q: What are the main issues raised by workers?
A: The most common problem is probably the right to sick leave. Workers have to provide a certificate to be on sick leave. But given their wage, going to the doctor is too expensive. That’s why they go to work even when they’re seriously sick and cannot enjoy one of the most basic labor rights. Maternity leave is also an important issue. Most garment workers have short-term contracts and employers tend to renew these contracts over and over. Why? Because it denies workers their right to maternity leave as well as their seniority bonus. We also have many cases of workers who have been dismissed for being pregnant, or enjoying their right to rest but without receiving their legal allowance. These are typical cases where CLEC can provide legal support.
Q: What about overtime issues?
A: Excessive overtime is the cause of many health problems. But it’s above all the symptom of the low wages in Cambodia. It is not possible to survive without overtime in the garment sector. With your minimum wage, the health allowance and the attendance bonus, you get 73 dollars. Since you often have to pay 30 dollars for a simple room, you have no choice but to eat for one dollar a day. I’s as simple as that. But you need to send money to your family and cover your daily expenses. That’s why the majority of workers work more than 10 hours a day. Some even work seven days a week. They don’t have a choice. But even if they had the choice, they couldn’t refuse overtime because of their precarious contracts and the fear of losing their job.
Q: This is a human problems, but also a legal problem…
A: Absolutely. The Cambodian labor law is crystal clear on the issue of wages. Articles 104 and 107 specify that the minimum wage must guarantee decent living and human dignity. Specifically, the minimum wage paid for a 48-hours week must cover the worker’s basic needs – as well as those of his/her dependents – and be regularly revised to match with the inflation. But these two conditions are not met today. This is the responsibility of the state. Legally, the government has the obligation to guarantee a decent living for garment workers. This failure from the state is an opportunity for brands and manufacturers to get rid of their corporate social responsibility in Cambodia. This public failure is also the source of thousands of human problems. Women work too much, they eat less, they sleep less, they don’t go to the doctor… They are extremely vulnerable. That is why thousands of them fainted in 2010 and 2011. And the trend will go on this year.
Q: The Cambodian state is thus the first responsible for this situation?
A: Yes, because he is the one defining wages and violating its own legislation. On the paper, the Cambodian law and the legal system are excellent. We have a 3-level court system – first court, appeal and Supreme Court – and an Arbitration Council dealing with labor disputes. But the judicial system is not independent and decisions of the Arbitration Council are not always binding. That’s why workers try to avoid the judicial system and rely on strikes and on international campaigns.
We desperately need to have an independent labor court whose decisions are binding. CLEC has studied the models and functioning of such courts in other Asian countries. We will submit our recommendations to the government and to the unions pretty soon. But if the future Cambodian labor court is also a politically oriented body, then we’d better rely on the Arbitration Council…
Q: What is the responsibility of brands regarding wages?
A: They also bear a huge responsibility. Of course, brands are not NGOs and business is not philanthropy. But they have to respect their national laws and their codes of conduct. These codes underline the necessity to respect human rights, including the right to a decent work. Brands make a lot of fuss about their CSR. But if they want to be credible – especially with their clients – they need to be more responsive to the challenges faced by garment workers.
The faintings that occur regularly in Cambodia are already signs that brands’ commitment to decent work is not put into practice. A few months ago, Puma’s supplier Huey Chen was faced with massive faintings in Cambodia. I went there to estimate the number of victims. I interviewed workers and local shop owners, and they told me that at least 300 workers had fainted. I reported this to the media, but Puma immediately replied that “only” 131 workers had fainted. “Only”? This kind of reply is symptomatic, even if Puma eventually came up with a ‘correction plan’.
Q: But what is the interest for brands to push for better wages in the supply chain?
A: As businesses, brands should respect basic economic principles, like the link between productivity and wages. Studies in Cambodia have shown that workers employed for a couple of years constantly increase their added value and productivity: they gain skills, sew faster, are more precise... But at the same time, wages are getting lower and contracts are getting shorter. Economically speaking, that does not make sense. Brands must assume higher wages if they want to keep skilled people working for them. Better wages means higher productivity, better quality, better reputation and a justified price increase for the consumer. Moreover, Cambodia is already experiencing a shortage of workers willing to join garment factories because of the poor working conditions. Even faced with an important unemployment, Cambodian workers now prefer to join booming sectors like services and tourism. Brands and manufacturers should be worried about this.
Q: Business awareness will take time. Until then, striking seems to be the only way for workers to get better wages. Do you agree?
A: You are right. Given the failure of the legal system to protect workers and the absence of a wage adjustment mechanism, strikes have been the key weapon to increase salaries in the sector. But this path is not sustainable for the future. Strikes are extremely costly for the workers and for the employers. It hinders the industrial relations. Moreover, there is a growing criminalization of human rights activists in Cambodia, and union leaders can easily face judicial charges of ‘incitement’. That is a real problem today.
That’s why we need to work on all levels of society, from top to down. We have to promote the rule of law and the enforcement of good governance policies. And we need workers to constantly defend their rights with solid, legal arguments.
Q: Specifica, how do you help workers in dealing with these legal aspects?
A: We organize small meetings with local union leaders and provide them with adapted training sessions on labor law, civil law and criminal procedures. We also train them to prepare cases to be presented before the Arbitration Council. Even if its decisions are not binding, they are an important tool since brands, national and international stakeholders regularly affirm their support to the AC and its decisions.
The workers we train meet each other every 3 months to talk about their experiences. During these meetings, we also make an update on legislation and developments in the garment sector. To encourage them to actively use their knowledge, we have set up a symbolic incentives system. If they manage to bring a case to their employer and to reach an agreement, we give them one dollar. If they manage to bring the case to conciliation at the ministry level, they get 2 dollars. And if they push their case to the Arbitration Council, we give them 3 dollars. This system works very well – unfortunately for our budget [laugh].
These trainings really empower workers. I can see this day after day. They feel extremely proud to speak out, to accompany their colleagues to the court, to participate in meetings with the employers. There’s a new generation of activists emerging today. They are extremely motivated to learn and practice labor law. That is very encouraging, even if the road ahead is long and perilous.
Interview: Phork Hoeurng, coordinator of the Workers’ Information Center
The Workers’ Information Center (WIC) is a Cambodian grassroots organization working with female garment workers to improve their leadership and living conditions. WIC’s coordinator describes for us the main challenges faced by its members – and the successes so far.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: There are many unions and NGOs working with garment workers in Cambodia. Why set up an organization dealing specifically with women?
A: Women represent 90% of garment workers in Cambodia, but the vast majority of union leaders are men, especially at the federation level. Female workers generally have limited education – most of them only finished primary school and can barely write and read. They therefore think that they can’t speak out to their managers and to their union leader. This is a problem of equity, but also a problem of efficiency since women face specific problems related to their sex.
Q: What kind of problems?
A: Their safety, for instance. Many of them work overtime, until 9 or 10 pm. They have to go back home at night and are often victims of harassment from gangsters. Once they’re home, they still face danger because most of the rental houses don’t have indoor toilets and bathrooms. These are problems that men don’t have to face day after day.
Another specific problem is related to their health conditions. Because of the wages in the sector, most women cannot take care of their health. They work overtime, even in the weekend, and have no time to relax. To get money, they put their health in danger, even when they are pregnant. Hygiene conditions at home and in the factories also have an impact on maternity and pregnancy issues. And these are specific problems that requires women to take leadership.
Q: What does WIC do to act on these issues?
A: We get in touch with local authorities and with the police to improve lighting, security and rapid responses. We inform landlords on safety, hygiene and construction standards. We collaborate with unions to put this issue on the agenda. We even met local gangs!
Health and working condition problems are of course related to the insufficient wages in the sector, and is therefore a priority in our work. But we also provide basic health counseling and natural medicines.
Q: How do you deal with the wage problem?
A: Many workers are exploited because they’re not organized. That’s why we encourage them to create or join unions. We explain what the labor law is, what they can do when they have a problem, how they can organize. We facilitate sessions in the evening, in workers dormitories, and in WIC’s six safe houses located in and around Phnom Penh.
We also organize English classes for women. It’s part of the wage solution because they need to speak English to deal with some factory managers. And English allows them to consider new job opportunities, like working in supermarkets or in foreign organizations. You cannot stay in the garment sector for 15 years. That’s too exhausting. Thanks to these classes, some of them even went back to school. That is very encouraging
Q: What are WIC’s successes so far?
A: Every time we see one of our members becoming a union leader, it’s a victory. There aren’t many to date, but the movement is on. And we also had successes on major collective actions, like the PDC garment closure in 2008 [a supplier for Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch, ed. note]. The factory closed down unannounced and dismissed more than 500 workers without paying severance compensations. Workers were left jobless, with no money. WIC encouraged them to fight. We gave them legal counseling, got in touch with the Clean Clothes Campaign and after months of battle, 230 workers eventually got compensation. The others had abandoned the fight and found another job to survive.
Q: What is the added-value of collaborating with organizations like CCC?
A: International campaigns are extremely important because they have access to stakeholders at high level. We can’t. They can use the case studies that we compile here. And their communication towards consumers is also really effective. Consumers are informed and have a huge power, especially in Western countries. Of course, they still buy clothes from Gap, H&M or Levi’s – and that’s not wrong in my opinion – but they now express their willingness to see big brands improving working conditions in factories. Via the internet, they can participate in global campaigns towards big brands. And brands care about this because they cannot live without their customers.
Q: However, progress remains slow…
A: You are right, progress is really slow. Wages are still way too low. They do not match with the cost of living and the constant inflation. Take gasoline. Not so long ago, you only had to pay 1,000 riels for a liter. Today, it’s more than 4,000. Brands, factories and politicians should take this into account and adjust wages accordingly. Buyers remain the first responsible for this situation. Despite the international campaigns, they continue to put pressure on factories to keep wages as low as possible. Those who care about their image are sometimes cheated by the suppliers, who only show brands representatives a tiny part of the picture. And politicians don’t care or don’t really know what’s happening.
That’s why we have to work on every level. We have to push workers to join unions and fight for their rights. Unions must defend decent work and wages in factories. Consumers must speak out to the brands… Everything is linked. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to improve wages and working conditions in Cambodia!
Interview: Bent Gehrt, WRC Field Coordinator for Southeast Asia
Bent Gehrt is the Southeast Asian field director for the Workers’ Rights Consortium, an NGO that monitors factories producing apparel for 180 American, Canadian and British colleges and universities. He explains why Cambodia remains the regional ‘bad boy’ on wages and what challenges need to be urgently addressed.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: You monitor garment factories in South East Asia for more than six years now. What is, in your view, the main problem in Cambodian garment sector today?
A: Wage is definitely the first issue for Cambodian workers. Some people think that wages are okay since the cost of living is ‘cheap’ in Cambodia. But that is a mistake. It’s actually cheaper to live in Thailand and Vietnam, where the wages are higher. In Cambodia, authorities have failed to catch up with inflation over the last 10 years. Since 2000, the gap between the minimum wage and the inflation rate has been growing dramatically. The minimum wage has been increased, but the actual wage decreased by more than 14%. The consequence is immense. Today, you cannot feed yourself anymore with the wages in the garment sector. I challenge you to get a breakfast, a lunch and a supper with a budget of one or two dollars. You will not succeed. It’s therefore easy to understand why 2,400 workers fainted between June 2010 and January 2012…
Q: You just said that garment wages are higher in neighboring countries. Is Cambodia an exception regarding wages?
A: There is a strange thing about Cambodia. Seven years ago, Vietnam used to have a lower wage than Cambodia. But now, Vietnamese wages are almost twice as high as in Cambodia. And Vietnamese factories provide free lunch for their workers. In Ho Chi Minh City, workers get 95 Dollars as minimum wage, a 13th month (an extra month wage) and a daily free lunch. In Cambodia, workers get 61 Dollars, a 5 Dollars health allowance and have to pay for their food. If the Cambodian industry was competitive seven years ago with same wages as Vietnam, why couldn’t it be competitive with the same wage today? That doesn’t make sense. The wage increase in Vietnam has nothing to do with a sudden booming in workers’ productivity, and Vietnamese textile and garment sector attained an export turnover of over 14 billion USD in 2011. I don’t see why wages in Cambodia couldn’t be raised as well.
The same story happened in other countries as well. Laos recently increased wages by 80%. The minimum wage is now 78 dollars – higher than in Cambodia. Thailand is planning to increase wages by 40% in the near future. The trend takes place everywhere around Cambodia, especially since China increased wages in its own garment sector. Why don’t Cambodian authorities follow this path? I don’t know. But there is a clear lack of political will. And I don’t see any chance of change in their approach. Unless something really dramatic occurs…
Q: Apart from wages, do you notice new challenging trends in Cambodian garment sector?
A: The most worrying trend is the massive increase in short-term contracts. The use of fixed-duration contracts (FDCs) perfectly illustrates the “boiling frog story”: if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you increase the heat of the water slowly, it will get accustomed and eventually get cooked to death. That’s what’s happening now in Cambodia.
When the trend started in 2005, employers used a very smart strategy. They stressed the fact workers could get 5% severance when their contract was terminated. Five percent, that makes only 3 dollars, but that means a lot when you have to eat for one dollar per day. Factory owners also maintained bonuses like seniority and maternity leave. Many unions didn’t notice the real danger behind these short-term contracts. But now that most factories have converted the unlimited duration contracts (UDCs) into short-term contracts, employers are in a favorable position and tend to cut all these benefits. Today, these precarious contracts are the main source of labor rights violations: termination of contracts for pregnant workers or union leaders, de facto forced overtime, etc. The ultimate aim of FDCs is to control the workers, to dismiss them without any valid reason – a condition required with UDCs – and to get rid of ‘disturbing’ elements. FDCs are extremely dangerous for unions. The water is boiling now. And even if these practices are totally illegal, factories are not alarmed because they can act in total impunity. But I predict a rise in strikes against this phenomenon.
Q: How did this massive shift happen so quickly?
A: By using persuasion, blackmail and cheating practices. The persuasive approach was based on stressing the maintenance of severance and bonuses. But financial blackmail was also widely used, especially before the two major holidays: Cambodian New Year and Pchum Ben – the ‘ancestor’s day’. These events are extremely important in the country. Workers need money to go back to their villages. This is the perfect timing to blackmail them. Sun Tex and Bright Sky factories are two striking examples. In 2008 and 2009, they converted their entire workforce into short-term contracts just by saying “we will give you extra money for the holidays, but you have to sign a 6-months contract”. Of course, many workers agreed. Some union leaders denounced the trick and were immediately dismissed. And no buyer took action.
PCCS Group, the owner of several factories in Cambodia, used another strategy. The company moved its production from one factory to another to make it look like a decrease in orders. They started early retirement programs, gave severance pay and closed one of their units. But as soon as all workers were dismissed, they reopened the factory with a brand new name, and hired all workers on 3-months contracts with minimum wage. The only thing that didn’t change was the buyers: Gap and Adidas. And I can’t believe that these brands were unaware of this trick. There must have been communication about this strategy.
Q: Who is primarily responsible for this situation?
A: It’s a difficult question. The responsibility is clearly shared by brands, Cambodian officials and manufacturers. The Cambodian Arbitration Council (AC) has stated that the continuous renewal of FDCs is illegal: after two years, you must get a UDC. Brands, officials and employers say that they all support the Arbitration Council’s decisions, but no one wants to implement that specific one on FDCs. If you claim that you support the AC, you cannot pick and choose which decisions you respect and which ones you reject. Brands have failed to respect their pledge to support the AC. Manufacturers pretend that there is a legal uncertainty. And government officials propose amendments to the labor law… aimed at legalizing the illegal practices of companies.
Q: The situation seems desperate on this issue…
A: Since no one is willing to take serious steps in the right direction, there are very few successes so far. The only positive example I know occurred in 2006, when Adidas asked one of its suppliers to give UDCs to the workers. Since then, I haven’t seen any success at all. And as far as I know, only two factories in Cambodia exclusively work with UDCs: E Garment and SL Garment. But they also have huge issues with freedom of association. In some other factories where unions are strong, the majority of workers also have UDCs. But that’s all. In general, larger companies provide 6 months or one year contracts – it would be crazy for them to manage to renew 5,000 contracts every 3 months. But smaller factories often use shorter contracts: 3 months, 2 months or even 25-days contracts. The rule is simple. If you ‘behave well’, you can get a longer contract. Otherwise, you’re out.
Q: You are a monitoring expert in the region. What do you think of the monitoring system in Cambodia?
A: As you know, Cambodia has a unique monitoring system in the world managed by the International Labour Organization: the “Better Factories Cambodia” program (BFC). When this system was set up in the country, it really made a difference. The first BFC reports clearly named the factories where labor rights violations occurred. And these were public reports. But in 2005, with the phasing out of the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA), the rules changed and a new agreement had to be reached on these reports. The naming of factories was then abandoned. Since then, factories are the only ones who decide who should have access to the comprehensive, detailed reports on violations. Public reports just mention the violations found in the sector, but without saying where it occurred. It’s a shame. The last BFC report mentions cases of child labor in five factories. But which are these factories? That’s a major transparency problem. People should know.
The other problem with this ILO system is that subcontracted units cannot be monitored. They operate in a completely opaque context. How many are they in the country? Two hundreds? Two thousands? Nobody knows, and this is another major weakness of the program.
A third problem is of course that controllers from the Ministry of Labor are dramatically underpaid. They get 50 or 60 Dollars a month, and even their per diems are confiscated by their supervisors. They would be crazy to refuse the bribes offered to close their eyes…
Q: So how does WRC deal with a problem that even the UN cannot address?
A: WRC controllers have the right to monitor the suppliers as far as needed. That is part of the contract we sign with the brands. Most of the time, we have full access to factories. But subcontracting practices are not always easy to identify. So far, it’s been very difficult to identify these factories and it is clearly one of our priorities for the future. One way of finding it is to push brands to disclose the volume of their orders. But they’re not always 100% transparent on that issue. That’s where international pressure can be very useful.
Q: Precisely, what is the added value of international campaigns in improving wages and working conditions in Cambodia?
A: They definitely play a big role. Of course, change cannot come only from overseas. Workers are the main actors of change and our role is not to take over their action. But campaigns play a key role in enhancing the visibility of their actions. Take the September 2010 general strike. The movement came from the workers, but its impact has been greatly amplified through other stakeholders like the Clean Clothes Campaign. Many union members were fired in retaliation of the strike, but the international pressure on brands like H&M or Inditex was decisive to reinstate them. As the saying goes, “no one is free as long as one is not free”. And in Cambodia, the majority of workers are not free. So we can’t just wait for workers to be strong and organized. It’s a question of solidarity.
Q: What is your message to those who feel bad wearing Levi’s jeans?
A: If you want to be 100% ethical, you’ll have to live naked. Everything you can find in general stores was made in a sweatshop. It’s as simple as that. But when you buy clothes, you can decide to reward the companies who are positively engaged with unions and NGOs. Is the brand you want to buy responsive to their appeals and campaigns? Does it correct its practices when there is a problem? These are important steps. That’s why I can say that I will never buy or wear Ralph Lauren shirts. Ralph Lauren never responds to any request from unions or NGOs. At least, Levi’s responds to NGOs’ requests. That’s a positive step. So keep your Levi’s. But don’t think it’s not a sweatshop product, because it is. And don’t think that expensive, luxury brands like Tommy Hilfiger or DKNY promote better working conditions in their supply chains. They don’t. I know a Hugo Boss supplier paying the minimum wage to the workers. Given the price they ask for their product, don’t you think they can afford to pay a little more?
Interview: Ath Thorn, President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union (C.CAWDU)
Ath Thorn is the president of C.CAWDU, the largest independent garment union in Cambodia. Leader of a 50,000 member’s movement, he describes the daily problems faced by garment workers in the country.
By Clean Clothes Campaign
Q: Who are the 400,000 garment workers in Cambodia?
A: They’re generally young women from poor rural villages who had no choice but leave their family to get money in and around Phnom Penh. Poverty is such state in the countryside that some parents cannot feed their children or send them to school. That’s why they decide to send one, two or three daughters to the factory to financially support the rest of the family.
Once they find a job in a factory, these girls send as much money as possible to their hometown. That’s the deal. But they also have to pay for the rent, for their food, for their clothes and for all their daily expenses. Since they don’t get enough money, they generally borrow money from neighbors, from friends or moneylenders, with interest rates up to 20% per month. That’s why most of their money ends up in other hands: their relatives, their landlords and their creditors.
Q: So how do they manage to find enough money to survive?
A: They have to cut their expenses on every item possible. They share tiny rooms with 3, 4 or 5 people. They eat as little as it is humanly possible. They don’t go to the doctor when they’re sick… And of course, they make a lot of overtime. All these factors explain why we have these mass faintings everywhere in the country.
Q: How much money do they get in the factories?
A: The minimum wage in the garment sector is 61 USD per month – 56 dollars if you’re on probation period. Given the explosion of mass faintings, the government recently added a monthly 5 dollars health allowance. That makes 66 dollars. All the extra money you can get is conditional. For instance, you can get 7 dollars as ‘attendance bonus’ if you don’t miss a single working day. You also get 1 extra dollar per seniority year. And if you work overtime, you get 0,5 dollar per 2 hours.
Q: Is this an improvement compared to the situation 10 years ago?
A: We fought very hard to get there. In 2000, the minimum wage was only 40 dollars. Between 2000 and 2010, we had to organize four general strikes to get better wages. We had no other option. Every strike led to a 5 dollar increase. These protests also led to better bonuses. The attendance bonus increased from 5 to 7 dollars, overtime allowance doubled, seniority bonus was extended to 11 years – and not 4 years as it was previously... But even with these increases, we’re far, very far from a living wage.
Q: What would be a living wage in the sector?
A: Studies conducted in 2009 by the Cambodian Institute of Development Studies showed that minimum wage should be between 93 and 120 USD. And that was in 2009, when inflation was really low compared to 2012. Today, given the price increases, it is impossible to cover basic needs with less than 100 dollars. And I’m just talking about basic needs: food, rental and transportation. Since it is very hard to get increases in the minimum wage, we have to work on better bonuses and allowances to get as close as possible to 100 dollars.
Q: Why does the minimum wage remain so low in Cambodia?
A: Many factors explain this, but the first problem is definitely corruption. Garment is the first industry in Cambodia, and factory owners are extremely powerful. They have a huge influence on decision-makers and can easily bribe officials or unions to keep minimum wages as low as possible.
A second problem is that many other sectors in Cambodia do not have a legal minimum wage. The answer from the authorities is therefore easy: “how could we possibly increase salaries since civil servants do not even have such a legal minimum wage?”
A third reason is the classic ‘competitiveness argument’. Companies and buyers always argue that they can find cheaper labor costs elsewhere, in Bangladesh for instance. That’s a weighty and scary argument that companies use everywhere to make a maximum of profit while leaving workers with the lowest amount of money possible. But if you analyze the situation, you understand that this pressure on the wages is not in their interest.
Q: How so?
A: Because they now realize that leaving workers with such small wages is counter-productive. Workers get sicker and sicker, faintings happen all the time, and this has a cost for companies. Even China had to increase wages in recent years to deal with these problems. Moreover, many people are now thinking twice before joining the garment industry. Given the wages and the bad working conditions, many of them prefer to work in the tourism or services sectors, or choose to migrate. Only non-qualified, poor workers from the countryside then fill these positions. Qualified workers who stay in the industry tend to move from one company to another to find the best conditions and benefits. The low-cost policy pushes qualified workers to move away.
The situation is such in Cambodia that the garment employer’s federation recently announced that 50,000 vacancies remain unfilled. But who wants to work in factories that pay so low wages or don’t provide rental houses? That’s the case near Phnom Penh airport, for instance, where factories remain empty because they don’t provide any facility.
Q: What about the contracts issue? The number of short-term contracts is booming in recent years…
A: Today, I’d say that 60% of workers have a short term contract in the industry. Of course, if you visit the factories monitored by the International Labor Organization, you will probably find more than 80% of unlimited duration contracts. But everybody knows that these factories subcontract large parts of their production in shadow units, where 100% of the workers get short-term contracts. However, even monitored factories try to push workers to sign short-term contracts. That is one of the major issues that we have to face as a union.
Q: What’s the problem with short term contracts?
A: Short-term contracts are the root of major problems for workers. First, every contract you sign brings you back to a ‘zero-year’ seniority, so that you cannot enjoy your right to annual leave, maternity- and seniority allowance.
But short term contracts also act as Damocles swords on workers. “You refuse to make overtime? You contract will not be renewed”. “You want to join a union? Your contract will not be renewed”. “You get pregnant? Your contract will not be renewed”. And so on. Short-term contracts are a weapon of social destruction in Cambodia. They’re meant to maintain a precarious, servile and non-organized workforce in the factories. And thus keep wages low. The law authorizes factories to hire temporary workers for very specific tasks and specific times. It doesn’t allow them to multiply short term contracts. But that’s what’s happening. And that is totally illegal.
Q: Is the situation better in factories supplying big brands like Gap, Levi’s or H&M?
A: I generally say that working conditions are better in these factories thanks to the ILO mechanism I mentioned earlier. But as I told you, these suppliers also work with a large network of subcontractors that remain totally out of sight. Sometimes, the number of workers subcontracted is three, four or five times higher than in the monitored unit. And this is where the worst violations of labor law happen: forced overtime, union busting, no minimum wage...
Brands perfectly know that. They cannot just say “Oh, these are not the factories I deal with, it is not my responsibility.” It is their responsibility. A child would understand that when you order one million shirts to a 1,000-workers factory, it’s impossible to get them in a week.
Q: What can be done against this phenomenon?
A: It’s hard to find and fight these subcontractors, because they can close from one day to another and reopen elsewhere in the country. It’s a hide-and-seek game. And it is of course very difficult for us to enter these units and establish a union because union leaders are immediately dismissed. But it’s easy to show to the brands that the volume of production they get from “their” supplier cannot be manufactured there. When we find such illegal subcontractors, we denounce them to the authorities, to ILO, to the brands… We also take action during the annual garment buyers’ forum. But progress remain slow.
Q: What have been the successes of C.CAWDU so far?
A: Even if working conditions and wages remain bad in the country, they improved over the years. The union movement is stronger today than 10 years ago, and factories have to take this into account. C.CAWDU has now 48.000 members in 63 factories, and the number of affiliates is growing every year. We managed to impose or to defend unlimited contracts in many factories, and we’ve been at the forefront of the general strikes in the country.
But beyond all this, the main victory for me is to see all these workers interested in labor law, willing to learn about their rights and to defend it. A few years ago, many workers didn’t even know that their working conditions were bad. They considered it as normal. Today, they know what is acceptable and what is not. They can make the difference between an independent and a yellow union. And even if they sometimes still fear to join us, they know we’re here.
Q: C.CAWDU also established strong ties with international partners like the Clean Clothes Campaign. What is the added value of these outside actors?
A: The support of international organizations like CCC is decisive in our fight. Our actions complete each other. Unions make pressure on factory owners here, but CCC has access to consumers and big brands. This double action is key to showing which companies can be praised, and which ones can be put on a black list. Nobody loves to be black-listed.
International campaigns improved their strategies over the years. First-generation campaigns led to boycott or reduction of orders in Cambodia. That was not what workers needed here. But today, through their communication and advocacy, these campaigns push brands to make the right choices, to improve their practices. And that’s what we all want here in Cambodia.
Den danske tøjindustri er blandt Europas største, men der produceres stort set ikke længere tøj i Danmark. I 1950’erne var der omkring 50.000 mennesker ansat på danske tekstil- og beklædningsfabrikker. I dag er der omkring 400 organiserede tekstil- og tøjarbejdere tilbage.
Af Magnus Bundgaard Nielsen
Overraskende nok er Danmarks eksport i samme periode eksploderet. Hvor stort set hele produktionen i 1950’erne gik til hjemmemarkedet, ‘eksporterede’ Danmark i 2008 tøj og tekstil for 28,4 mia. kr. Det skyldes, at tøjet produceres for danske virksomheder i udlandet, hvorefter det reeksporteres.
Den danske tøjindustri har rødder, der går flere hundrede år tilbage. På den jyske hede hvor landbrugsjorden var dårlig, slog fåreavlere sig ned og lod deres får gå og græsse på de store åbne vidder. De strikkede sokker af ulden, og solgte dem fra gård til gård. I takt med industrialiseringen i 1800 tallet gik branchen fra at være et håndværk til en industri. Inden industrialiseringen var tøj noget man fik syet hos skrædderen efter egne mål.
På trods af at skiftet i produktionsmetoder vendte op og ned på branchen, blev det midtjyske hedeområde ved med at være præget af tøjindustrien. Omkring 1850 blev symaskinen opfundet, og sidst i 1800-tallet blev de første bomuldsspinderier etableret. Med tiden skød en perlerække af små og store tøjvirksomheder op i området, og koblet med, at lønningerne generelt var lavere her, end i andre dele af landet, dannede det fundamentet for den tøjindustri vi har i dag, som er baseret i midtjylland.
Omkring 1950 var tøjbranchen en af de største arbejdsgivere i Danmark, men siden da er det kun gået ned ad bakke. I dag foregår stort set al produktion af tøj til danske virksomheder uden for landet og først og fremmest i lande uden for EU. Danske tøjarbejdere har (havde) en lang tradition for faglig organisering, og selvom lønningerne var lavere end i andre erhverv, lykkedes det blandt andet at sikre, at arbejdet blev mindre ensidigt gentaget, og at akkorderne blev sat ned.
Men de danske tøjarbejdere kunne ikke konkurrere med udenlandsk arbejdskraft, og gradvist flyttede alle danske tøjvirksomheder deres produktion ud af landet. De forbedringer de danske tøjarbejdere opnåede fulgte ikke med. I dag er de danske tøjvirksomheder større end nogensinde, men stort set alle de danske arbejdspladser er inden for design og administration.
Den danske tøjbranche i dag
Den globale tøj- og tekstilindustri er i dag totalt uafhængig af geografi. Tøjfirmaerne kan i dag flytte produktionen rundt efter behov, og det skaber en situation, hvor tøjproducerende lande kæmper mod hinanden for at tiltrække arbejdspladser. Dette er blevet kaldt et kapløb mod bunden, fordi man ikke konkurrerer på, hvem der kan producere det bedste, men på hvem der kan producere det billigst og med de færreste forhindringer og begrænsninger. Disse begrænsninger kunne f.eks. være sikkerhed, løn under barsel, mindsteløn og sågar betaling for strøm og vand.
Tøjindustrien er kendetegnet ved ikke at kræve et højt teknologisk niveau, store investeringer eller en høj uddannelse af arbejderne. Samtidig er industrien meget arbejdskrævende, og dette betyder at tøjfabrikker er opstået i mange verdens fattigste lande, hvor der er mangel på arbejdspladser.
Tøjfirmaer uden ansvar
De store firmaer er med tiden gået væk fra selv at eje fabrikker. I stedet udbyder de deres ordrer på et globalt marked. Firmaer der er agerer mellemmænd mellem fabrikken og virksomheden bag byder på ordren og står altså for den samlede koordinering af produktionen. Dette giver en række fordele for tøjfirmaerne: For det første kan de sikre sig, at de hele tiden får produceret deres varer det billigste sted. For det andet betyder det, at mange funktioner i produktionen bliver udliciteret, og ansvaret placeret et andet sted. Hele logistikken bag tøjproduktionen tager andre sig af, og firmaerne er ikke længere økonomisk ansvarlige i forbindelse med uheld eller erstatningskrav. Desuden kan de ved brud på arbejdsrettigheder eller andre problemer henvise til, at det er deres underleverandør, som ikke har levet op til deres aftaler.
Som forbruger betyder det også, at det er langt sværere at gennemskue under hvilke forhold tøjet er produceret. Tøjmærkets navn står ikke på siden af fabriksbygningen, og den ene dag kan arbejderne sy jeans for Levi’s, mens de den anden dag kan sy poloer til H&M.
Tøjfirmaer som H&M og Bestseller har bygget en forretningsmodel op på denne måde med stor succes. Firmaerne har alle opstillet retningslinjer for arbejdsforhold og rettigheder m.m., kaldet ’Codes of Conduct’, men når man som Bestseller har omkring 1.000 leverandører, og når disse også har underleverandører, er det ikke noget de kan kontrollere til fulde.
I ’kapløbet mod bunden’ kan det betale sig for underleverandørerne at presse lønniveau og arbejdsforhold helt i bund. Prisen betales af arbejderne.