Temporary Employment Contracts in Cambodia – Exit Ramp Off the “High Road?”

To:Primary Contacts, WRC Affiliate Colleges and Universities
From:Ben Hensler, General Counsel and Deputy Director
Date:May 12, 2009
Re:Temporary Employment Contracts in Cambodia – Exit Ramp Off the “High Road?”

The following is an update on important work the WRC is currently doing in Cambodia.

As many observers have recognized, gains made for the rights of workers in the global apparel industry are very often of the “two steps forward, one step back” variety. One place where this is clearly true is Cambodia, where modest progress in promoting worker rights over the last ten years is now being severely undermined by the garment industry’s wholesale shift to use of temporary work contracts – and, most recently, by a manufacturer-backed attempt to remove all limitations on such arrangements by amending the country’s labor code. The WRC is working with local partners in Cambodia and international labor and human rights groups to research the impact of this shift on garment workers, analyze the proposed amendment, and engage manufacturers, buyers and governments regarding this issue. Cambodia is a major source of university logo apparel.

As many of you know, during much of the past decade, Cambodia has been cited as a rare success story for international labor rights advocacy. Cambodia has promoted its garment industry as representing a “high road” model for economic development that relies on increased respect for international labor standards as a competitive advantage in the global apparel market. While the reality was decidedly more mixed – as evidenced by several high-profile assassinations of trade union leaders during the same period, among other sobering problems – the overall picture, until recently, has been a significantly more open environment for labor rights activism than exists in most other garment-producing countries in the developing world.  

Contrary to the views of some critics of codes of conduct, the primary impact of the “high-road” approach has not been on labor costs (which have remained flat), but in the expansion of basic human rights – the right of women workers to take maternity leave, the ability of workers to refuse eighteen-hour workdays, the freedom of shop-floor worker representatives to speak on behalf of their co-workers without fear of losing their jobs. This progress is being reversed as garment factories have converted their entire workforces to short-term contracts – circumventing legal protections and making exercise of basic rights far more risky for workers.

Because, under Cambodia’s labor law, many rights for workers are premised on regular employment status, key protections – like women workers’ right to maternity leave – are threatened. Worker representatives increasingly face the threat of their employment contracts not being renewed if they are too assertive in defending their co-workers, and often must fight just to keep their own jobs, rather than advocate for the broader workforce. Cambodia’s garment manufacturers appear to have headed for the nearest exit off the “high road.”  

Working with both local partners and international allies, the WRC is engaging garment manufacturers, apparel exporters, and the Cambodian government concerning the impact of these contingent work arrangements on employees. This work involves research and remediation efforts directed at specific factories employing workers on temporary contracts and outreach to both apparel brands and the government concerning the employer-backed proposals to weaken the labor law.

We wanted to provide our affiliates with an outline of the work we are doing on this issue.

In the last three months, in addition to our ongoing investigation and remediation work at a number of Cambodian garment factories, nearly all of which employ workers under temporary contracts, the WRC has also:

Brought the proposed labor law amendment to the attention of the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and organized a joint letter from leading US-based international labor rights advocates to the Cambodian Ambassador to the US, expressing concern over the proposed labor law amendment. We are currently organizing a follow-up meeting with the Embassy to discuss the issue.

  • Written to major apparel brands, who, under the auspices of Business for Social Responsibility, have also expressed concern over the proposal to the Cambodian Government, inviting their collaborative engagement with WRC on this issue going forward. The WRC is currently following up on this letter with Nike and other brands that signed BSR’s letter.
  • Begun working in partnership with a leading university-based human rights advocacy and education program, the Yale Law School Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic, on a comprehensive research project aimed at the issue. The project involves in-depth legal analysis, worker interviews, consultations with stakeholders, an examination of comparative best practices in the region, and the development of policy recommendations. The Yale research team visited Cambodia in mid-March and is currently drafting its report.
  • Worked with major apparel brands, including Gap and Philips van Heusen, to address involuntary conversion of the workforce from permanent employment to temporary work contracts at Ocean Sky, Cambodia’s largest garment manufacturer, which has also been disclosed as a supplier of collegiate licensed apparel. The WRC is currently preparing a comprehensive update to the company’s buyers on this case.
  • Engaged an apparel vendor to the City of Los Angeles, Medline Industries, regarding the hiring of employees under temporary employment contracts at a factory it is opening in Cambodia (the WRC is the labor rights enforcement agent for the City of L.A., under its Sweatfree Procurement Ordinance). Medline has agreed that while it will initially hire employees on temporary contracts, it will give employees the option of switching to regular employment status after an initial period of service. WRC welcomes this progress but notes that Cambodian law already provides for probationary periods for employees hired under traditional employment agreements.

We look forward to updating you further on this important project and inviting your collaboration as it progresses.

Please contact us if you have any questions about this information.

Benjamin Hensler
General Counsel and Deputy Director
Worker Rights Consortium
(415) 503-0465 (phone/fax)
(415) 640-8850 (mobile)  
[email protected]