Labor Rights Violations in Cambodia’s Garment Industry

Divya Taneja, Vol. 37 Business and Development Editor, Vol. 36 Associate Editor

Last month, Human Rights Watch released a report on labor violations in Cambodia’s garment industry.[i] The 140-page report details discriminatory and exploitative labor conditions that occur in the factories of many brands that are well known across the globe, including Gap, Marks & Spencer, and Adidas.[ii] The controversy surrounding these labor rights violations have drawn attention to ill-treatment that is specific to women, including pregnancy discrimination, in part because roughly 90% of Cambodia’s seamstresses are women.[iii] Cambodia is responsible, as are all countries, for complying with international human rights law, including labor rights. Cambodia is a member state to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) treaty,[iv] meaning it has assented to comply with the ILO’s standards. Cambodia is party to several international legal conventions governing the rights of women in the workplace and other worker rights: the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol,[v] the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol,[vi] the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),[vii] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[viii] The country has also ratified 13 ILO conventions, including the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98), the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). The report illustrates a labor violations maelstrom, in which “the combination of short-term contracts which make it easier to get rid of workers at any moment, poor government labor inspection and enforcement, as well as aggressive tactics against independent unions make it extremely difficult for workers to assert their rights.”[ix] The situation is made worse by the fact that international apparel brands based in developed countries are the ones who contract work out to these factories while only capable of weak oversight of the factory conditions. A main problem with the factories is that many of them offer short-term contracts, thus exposing those workers to more exploitation and less recourse. These factories hire workers on what are called “fixed-duration contracts” or on other short-term, unofficial arrangements, basing it on seasonal labor demands or other temporary business needs. Human Rights Watch noted that workers with such arrangements who are repeatedly hired on short-term contracts or on a casual basis are more likely to experience labor abuses.[x]  The report also cites pressure to meet production targets as a factor that exacerbates the exploitation of workers.[xi] These production targets create high-pressure, intense work environments that intimidate workers and keep them from using the bathroom, taking breaks, and drinking water.[xii] To meet these production targets, workers were often forced to work overtime, enticed by promises of overtime payment that were subsequently revoked.[xiii] Pursuant to Cambodia’s labor law, overtime work must be limited to “exceptional or urgent work,” it must be voluntary, and workers must be paid a higher overtime rate.[xiv] The report cites many violations of the overtime law, and it is becoming clear that there are gaps in brands’ oversight of the factories they utilize to create their garments. Exploitations that are particular to women, including pregnancy-based discrimination and sexual harassment, are pervasive. The Human Rights Watch report found that factories would tell pregnant women they were not hiring, but they would then recruit new employees the next day.[xv] The report also revealed that a common problem is that factories would not renew contracts once women were visibly pregnant.[xvi] In more draconian cases, pregnant workers’ employment would suddenly be terminated; in some cases, it was noted that this would happen just before the woman’s due date.[xvii] Cambodia is also getting flak in the report because many of its factories have failed to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women. An ILO report has found that “[t]he concept of reasonable accommodation is considered a fundamental principle of equality of access to employment, for it takes account of limitations and special needs which may lend themselves to unlawful distinctions . . . [T]he unjustified refusal to undertake such adaptations may in itself constitute an act of discrimination.”[xviii] It is therefore likely a labor rights violation to not make accommodations for pregnant women such as light duty and more frequent bathroom breaks. The report notes that the norm is to not allow for such breaks and temporary alterations in duties, and pregnant women often end up leaving these jobs because of fatigue.[xix] The report also revealed that 1 in 5 women working in these factories believed that sexual harassment led to the creation of threatening work environments in their factories.[xx] Under international law the Cambodian government is obliged to ensure that the rights of workers are respected, though according to the report, “Cambodia’s local labor inspectorate has been wholly ineffectual and the subject of numerous corruption allegations.”[xxi] Now that these issues have surfaced and come to the attention of the international legal community, all relevant parties (including the Cambodian government, human rights and labor rights NGOs, apparel brands, the ILO, and the UN) can come to the table to make plans for compliance with all levels of law.

[i] Human Rights Watch, Work Faster or Get Out: Labor Rights Abuses in Cambodia’s Garment Industry (2015), available at [ii] Patrick Winn, GlobalPost, Here’s how the Cambodians who stitch your clothes are routinely abused, (Mar. 19, 2015), available at [iii] Id. [iv] Official Relations Branch, Alphabetical list of ILO member countries, International Labour Organization (November 26, 2013), available at [v] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, chap. IV, art. 8, Sept. 3, 1981, U.S.T.S 1249. [vi] Available at [vii] Available at [viii] Available at [ix] ‘Exploitation’: Clothing labels accused of Cambodia worker discrimination, child labor, RT (Mar. 12, 2015, 1:50 PM), available at [x] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 42. [xi] Id. at 55. [xii] Id. [xiii] Id. [xiv] Labor Law, Kingdom of Cambodia, Royal Decree No CS/RKM/0397/01, 1997, available at—ed_protect/—protrav/—ilo_aids/documents/legaldocument/wcms_150856.pdf (accessed January 20, 2015), art. 139. [xv] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 69. [xvi] Id. at 47. [xvii] Id. at 70. [xviii] ILO, Equality in Employment and Occupation, General Survey by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, International Labour Conference, 75th. Session, 1988, Report III (Part 4B), (Geneva: International Labor Office, 1996), p. 146. [xix] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 72. [xx] Id. at 90. [xxi] Id. at 16.