Imagine a nation where the sewing industry is characterized by:
- Eight hour work days
- Seamstresses earn two to three times as much as teachers and policemen.
- Child labor is unheard of.
- All overtime is paid.
- Free medical care on site.
- Three months paid maternity leave.
- Employers must give breast feeding mothers unimpeded access to their infants
- Forty three paid vacation days per year (no, we’re not talking about France, although it once was a French colony).
Does this sound like Shangri la? It’s not. It’s Cambodia; the only poor country in the world to guarantee fair labor practices in the needle trades. Comparatively, their successes far outweigh the standards used in more developed nations. Yes, Cambodia, where one third of the population was killed during the civil war in the 70’s. Today, the needle trade amounts to nearly 100% of the nation’s exports and one third of GDP, thanks to a program instituted under the Clinton Administration. Then, Cambodia agreed to become an unlikely experiment in quality manufacturing and workplace standards, agreeing to random and unsceduled factory monitoring. By all accounts, the experiment was a rousing success. That is until preferential trade practices expired in 2005. Then, it seemed that all could be undone.
In a repeat of a story first run on This American Life from NPR affiliate WBEZ, Rachel Louise Snyder reported on the consequences of nation building via fair labor practices (move the cursor to 19:30, the start of the Cambodia segment). The teaser reads:
Variations on an old tale with very modern consequences. Cambodia is competing with other nations for the business of big clothing companies all over the world, buyers like the Gap, Nike, Adidas. But they’ve vowed to follow fair labor practices, which, while eliminating sweatshops for workers, also ensures their costs are higher. Other countries end up with the contracts – and the profits. So an official Cambodian committee sets out on a mission to convince the U.S. Congress to give them a special trade agreement. Also, a story as old as David and Goliath themselves: the tale of big sister vs. little sister.
Can a poor country survive if it treats it’s workers fairly? With customers pricing packages from China where labor compliance is nonexistant, Cambodia is in a double bind. Cambodia doesn’t produce the textiles, zippers, buttons and thread used in the process, everything has to be imported. Then there’s infrastructure costs rivaling industrialized nations since electrity (for example) costs the same as the prices paid in downtown Tokyo. Then is the cost of compliance and monitoring itself. Currently, 70% factories are struggling. In the works is a plan to lobby the US congress for preferential trade practices. Currently, 35 LDC s -mostly sub Saharan Africa- receive lower tariffs; Cambodia is currently paying tariffs of 17% .
Still, Cambodia has retained a few good customers. One such customer is GAP; and say what you will about the company, their commitment is unwavering with 45 factories constituting about 25% of the Cambodian industry. GAP spokespersons say they have no plans to pull their factories out of Cambodia, relying on the Cambodian reputation of fair labor practices to build their brand.
If you’re in the market to outsource, you can find out more from the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia or Better Factories. Better Factories provides support services and training to make Cambodia’s industry more competitive — including training in lean manufacturing. From their website:
The Remediation program has been redesigned to cover 7 training modules, involving 2 groups of 7 factories over a period of 12 months. Each module lasts approximately 2 months and includes expert training, factory visits, and factory improvement plans, which help enterprises to make practical improvements at the factory level. The modules cover quality and productivity improvements, Cambodia in the global context, workplace cooperation, OSH, HR management and working conditions, and continuous Improvement.
Made in Cambodia. Finally, an outsourced label you can feel good about.
I’d like to draw your attention to a comment submitted by visitor who wishes to remain anonymous. While anonymous, I have verified their identity and I have complete confidence in the accuracy of their statement which reads:
A couple of points to bear in mind, in re: the facts cited above:
– Cambodian police and teachers are woefully underpaid, and generally work a second (or third) job and/or resort to corrupt practices in order to make enough to live. So while it’s true that the average garment worker in Cambodia makes 2-3 times (or more) the salary of a teacher, that is more a reflection on the low salaries in the public sector than a statement about high wages in the garment sector.
– Re: paid days off, Cambodian Labour Law provides for a 6-day work week (Monday-Saturday), 18 days paid annual leave (which may increase based on seniority) and around 25 paid public holidays. Employees in the garment sector generally work 26 days a month. And many will work on holidays (which are paid at a higher rate) in order to augment their earnings.
However, it’s true: the garment sector here follows far better practices than are usually found in the garment sector in other developing countries.