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20 Oct 2022

Elaine Lu, Solidar Suisse Hong Kong

Better Factories Cambodia must do more for garment workers

Solidar Suisse Hong Kong

The Better Work program is an initiative of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation, which seeks to improve working conditions and boost competitiveness within the garment industry across several countries, including Cambodia. Better Work’s transparency portal which publishes data on the working conditions of garment and footwear factories, assesses factories according to their compliance with international labour standards and national legislation. In Cambodia, the program operates as Better Factories Cambodia (BFC).

Last September, based on the user experiences of 11,000 workers and unions across Cambodia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, a joint statement was submitted by trade unions from Cambodia and Indonesia to Better Work and its advisory committee, putting forward four demands and seeking improvements to the Better Work transparency portal. The signatories were unions in Cambodia, Indonesia, Europe and a number of Trade Union Solidarity Support Organisations. One year since the joint statement, we have seen improvements regarding improved accessibility to the database. Better Work has started to redesign the portal, and grassroots unions were able to participate in a workshop earlier this year to provide feedback and shape its development.

We have seen increased engagement at the country-level offices of Better Work with trade unions, which also includes independent trade unions, regarding some of the issues raised in the statement. In Indonesia, there has been significant progress and dialogue between trade unions and Better Work Indonesia (BWI). BWI, during workshops and meetings with unions, expressed willingness in supporting unions to take a more active role in providing data and resolving grievances. Trade unions in Indonesia have been involved at the factory-level in sharing their opinions regarding compliance issues during BWI assessments. And for factories with multiple unions, the BWI Enterprise Assessor invites all unions for an interview. During a workshop on social protection facilitated by the Trade Union Rights Centre, BWI shared data on 10 factories, regarding factory management’s compliance regarding social protection issues. BWI is also currently exploring how they can provide more detailed information on the transparency portal.

These are positive developments, but the same cannot be said for the situation in Cambodia. One year after the joint statement, we are disappointed BFC has shown little commitment in addressing the three other demands. While there have been several meetings with unions in Cambodia regarding issues such as data needs, concrete action remains severely lacking. Instead, BFC has expressed that the demands in the statement, aside from the demand regarding accessibility to the portal, would be too difficult to fulfill. It is especially disappointing considering the progress in Better Work Indonesia, given the mandates for BWI and BFC are essentially the same.

In Cambodia, the published data must be improved so workers can refer to it, for example in collective bargaining negotiations. Workers and independent unions should be approached to verify the assessment results from Better Factories Cambodia and have channels to refute the findings.

While BFC allows factories to respond to non-compliance issues via the portal, unions and workers do not have any channels to dispute the findings. As such, the data at times has been inaccurate and does not reflect the reality for workers on the ground. More importantly, it appears BFC has created the transparency portal without significant input from workers regarding their data needs. The portal currently lacks sufficient information and does not include all issues that unions and workers would like to address at the workplace.

We recognize that given BFC’s program is based on tripartite cooperation, it may be difficult for governments and employers to agree to more data disclosure and feedback mechanisms for workers. BFC has also conveyed this to unions in Cambodia. But fundamental improvements in working conditions cannot occur without responding to and addressing concerns from workers and independent unions, and without this, the transparency portal risks becoming another social auditing tool used by brands which fails to drive significant improvements regarding workers’ rights. For this, BFC must engage more effectively with unions, taking the initiative to identify ways they can support unions in its program, especially in creating data reflective of the situation on the ground and useful for workers.

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly affected the garment industry. In Cambodia, garment workers protested unpaid wages, were driven into debt, and safety measures to prevent the spread of Covid were not implemented at factories. Furthermore, freedom of association in Cambodia is under attack, and independent unions are operating in an ever-shrinking space in the country. We call on Better Factories Cambodia to play a greater role in improving the lives of garment workers, by engaging more with unions and identifying specific actions to improve its transparency portal.

Elaine Lu is Programme Coordinator at Solidar Suisse Hong Kong