WRC Report on Violent Repression of Cambodian Workers Seeking Higher Wages

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova, Ben Hensler and Jessica Champagne
Date:March 24, 2014
Re:WRC Report on Violent Repression of Cambodian Workers Seeking Higher Wage

On January 2 and 3, Cambodian security forces engaged in deadly attacks on protesting garment workers in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. Outside the city’s Canadia Industrial Park, home to factories producing apparel for leading US and European brands and retailers, military police opened fire on protestors with assault rifles, killing four garment workers and injuring dozens more. Those killed included workers employed at factories reportedly supplying a number of major international brands and retailers, including Walmart, Hudson Bay, Sears, Abercrombie and Fitch, Nike, Russell, adidas, Puma, Uniqlo, HanesBrands, Primark, and Marks & Spencer.

The violence was the start of an ongoing crackdown by the Cambodian government and its military, acting at the behest of garment factory owners, on worker protests calling for higher pay in a country whose wages are the second-lowest ‒ $100 per month, above only those in Bangladesh ‒ among major apparel-producing countries.

The current crackdown in Cambodia is of serious concern to universities, colleges and licensees. Sixteen university licensees, including a number of the most important licensees, have disclosed producing collegiate apparel in Cambodia. In 2013, these licensees produced apparel at a total of 20 factories in the country. 

The WRC contacted the key collegiate licensees producing in Cambodia on January 3. Today, the WRC is releasing this report on the current human and labor rights crisis affecting garment workers in Cambodia and its relationship to the underlying issue of inadequate wages. The report also details the response of university licensees and the WRC’s recommendations for urgent action by licensees and other brands and retailers doing business in Cambodia.  

Since the shootings in early January, repression by the government and factory owners of Cambodian garment workers’ fundamental human and labor rights of assembly, association and free speech has continued with little respite. Over the past two months, state authorities have banned public gatherings, continued to violently disrupt peaceful protests, refused to legally recognize newly-formed unions, and continued to hold 21 workers detained during the January crackdown. The detainees reportedly include workers from factories supplying Nike, Team Edition (Footlocker), PVH, Polo Ralph Lauren, Costco, Bloomingdale’s, Dillard’s, and Clark’s Footwear.  

The most direct responsibility for both the needless loss of human lives and the repression of human and labor rights that followed clearly falls on the Cambodian government. However, Cambodian factory owners also are deeply implicated in this violent campaign against garment workers’ call for higher wages, as are their business partners ‒ the leading US and European apparel companies that obtain the greatest profits from these workers’ labor. Continued downward price pressure from international brands and retailers has ensured that factory owners strongly resist any increases in the minimum wage. The Cambodian government hears this message both from factory owners and international buyers, and fears that any increase in the wage will endanger Cambodia’s foothold in the garment industry. Meanwhile, workers’ frustration has mounted as real wages have dropped over the past decade. Without the price pressure applied by Western brands and retailers, these tensions would not have led to the massive protests and violent repression that Cambodia has seen over the past three months.  

The Cambodian garment industry’s ongoing refusal to pay its workforce a minimally adequate wage ‒ a refusal, in effect, dictated by the business practices of Western brands and retailers ‒ has resulted in the worst episode of state violence and repression against civilians in Cambodia in more than a decade. Human Rights Watch has called on apparel companies to “urge the Cambodian government to revoke its ban on protests and to release and drop charges against all individuals arrested for protesting for their labor rights.” 

The WRC, like Human Rights Watch, believes that apparel firms doing business in Cambodia, including university licensees, have a responsibility to attempt to influence the government towards a nonviolent response to workers’ protests that respects workers’ right to free speech and assembly, both directly and through their Cambodian suppliers, including by addressing the underlying issue of inadequate wages. For this reason, as detailed in our report, the WRC recommends that licensees, and other brands and retailers purchasing apparel from Cambodia, take the following steps: 

  • Ensure that their own supplier factories do not retaliate against workers on account of the exercise of associational rights. 
  • Help end the Cambodian government’s repression of worker rights, by communicating to government officials that persons who have been detained as a consequence of their participation in or association with the recent wage protests should be released, and that, until their release, such detainees should be treated in accordance with international human rights standards.  
  • Call on the Cambodian government to ensure that individuals responsible for excessive use of force, especially those responsible for causing death or injury, either directly or via command authority, are disciplined and prosecuted; and ensure adequate compensation for the victims of this violence. 
  • Meet with representatives of Cambodian garment workers and negotiate a written agreement that addresses the underlying causes of the current crisis, including commitments to:    
    o   Require their supplier factories in Cambodia to pay workers a minimum of $160 per month, as the wage needed to meet an individual worker’s basic needs;  
    o   Adjust their pricing practices as needed to permit their supplier factories to sustainably pay workers the $160 per month minimum; and  
    o   Assuming compliance with other commercial requirements, to maintain their business with factories that implement the $160 per month minimum for at least the next two years.

Both factory owners and the Cambodian government have expressed concern that significant increases in wages for garment workers will cause brands and retailers to shift orders to other countries. If university licensees and other brands and retailers make firm commitments not only to require their supplier factories to meaningfully increase wages, but also to factor such an increase into the prices they pay for garments, university licensees and other brands and retailers can play a vital role in resolving the current crisis.  

We recognize that engaging brands and retailers to sign an agreement as detailed above will be a major challenge. However, we believe that this is the only realistic approach to achieving long-term stability and labor peace in the Cambodian garment sector.

The WRC will continue to monitor the situation in Cambodia and will communicate our new recommendations to collegiate licensees and other brands and retailers producing in Cambodia.

As always, please contact me with any thoughts or questions. 

Scott Nova 
Worker Rights Consortium 
5 Thomas Circle NW, 5th Floor 
Washington DC 20005 
ph  202 387 4884 
fax 202 387 3292 
[email protected]