Cambodia’s violent handling of labor unrest earlier this month has united two groups who are often at odds when it comes to fair wages among the developing world’s garment workers: three global labor rights unions and 30 major European and North American retailers.
In a letter dated Jan. 17, the groups demand a Feb. 3 meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen to discuss his government’s response to garment workers who walked off their jobs to demand a minimum wage pay hike to $160 a month, above the $80 a month they earned in 2013 and $65 more than the government is willing to offer.
Security forces clashed with protesting garment workers in Phnom Penh earlier this month trying to force an end to a walk-off of about 350,000 garment workers, a police action that resulted in at least five workers killed and dozens of others injured. For retailers, labor conditions in Bangladesh and mass protests regarding wages in Cambodia have created a public relations problem. The largest companies that utilize labor in the finished garment industries in these two major garment exporters faced criticism last year over the use of subcontracted labor in Bangladesh, where garment workers often toil in dangerous working conditions. The April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza building collapse in the Dhaka that killed more than 2,500 workers involved in making garments for well-known names like Benetton, Bonmarche and Walmart was the most striking example last year.
The companies say they’re doing what they can to improve working conditions while labor rights advocates accuse them of not doing enough and of putting the interests of Western consumers’ price expectations and shareholders above those of workers that make these products.
The issue is a difficult one to address, because workers in these countries rely heavily on these economically significant jobs, even to the point where they are willing to accept dangerous, low-wage working conditions largely unseen in the West in over a century.
The three unions that have joined with the 30 retailers – 29 if you count Britain’s Asda as the wholly owned subsidiary of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) – are often at odds with the companies that have joined in demanding the Hun Sen administration launch a prompt and through investigation into police actions against striking workers. The United Nations has made similar demands.
The country has been trying to open up to investment and tourism after decades of living in a closed police state, so it doesn't want to see unsightly clashes between government forces under the control of the ruling Cambodian People's Party and workers, whom advocates say need significantly higher wages just to make ends meet.
Here’s the full text of the letter, and below it, all the signatories.
Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia Cabinet of the Prime Minister, Council of Ministers Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia
17 January 2014
Dear Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia,
We, the undersigned global brands and global unions, write to communicate to you our grave concern at the killing and wounding of workers and bystanders by security forces on 2 and 3 January 2014.
The use of deadly force against protesting workers will not result in long‐term industrial peace and jeopardizes Cambodia’s position as a stable sourcing location for international brands. We strongly support the United Nation’s request that the Royal Government of Cambodia launch a prompt and thorough investigation into the events of 2 and 3 January 2014. The investigation should ensure full accountability of any members of security forces found to have used disproportionate and excessive force and to take measures to prevent the repetition of such acts.
We urge the Government to immediately engage employers and unions to negotiate a resolution to this crisis and to lay the foundation for credible and regular dialogue between workers, employers and government.
A constructive path forward for the industry must address issues that have been the root cause of current and past conflicts as follows:
1. Rights of detainees. The government must respect the rights of the 23 detained trade union leaders and workers as detailed by the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Failure to take such actions constitutes serious interference with civil rights in general and trade union rights in particular.
2. Respect for the right to freedom of association. Legal action against organizations for their legitimate union activity violates ILO Convention 87, Protection of the Right to Organize, which Cambodia has ratified. It states that “no one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike.”
International law sets strict parameters for the respect of trade union rights and the Government must be in compliance with these. Violence and destruction of property are not legitimate tools of industrial action, and punitive measures should be taken against the individuals who commit those acts. However, legal action against unions participating in the wage strike violates this core labor rights standard, and is counterproductive to re‐establishing social dialogue in the garment industry.
3. Trade union law. The introduction of a legal framework that is consistent with ILO Conventions 87 and 98 as the foundation for effective industrial relations is long overdue. We urge the government to re‐start an inclusive process that clarifies the legal responsibilities of both employers and workers to contribute to good industrial relations.
4. New wage‐setting process. The government needs to honor previous commitments to institute a methodologically sound and inclusive process for determining the minimum wage. This new process should find prompt agreement on a new minimum wage and include a regular review mechanism to underpin more stable industrial relations.
The Government should accept technical assistance from the ILO to establish an effective wage‐setting mechanism and to develop and implement a trade union law.
The global garment industry is changing rapidly, and industrial peace is required to rebuild our confidence in the Cambodian garment industry.
We respectfully request that Samdech meet with senior representatives of the undersigned in the week of 3 February 2014 to discuss how we can help you achieve the above‐mentioned goals.
Please accept, Samdech, the assurance of our highest consideration.
The following are the signatories of the letter, in alphabetical order of their companies.
Frank Henke, global director for social and environmental affairs at Adidas Group of Herzogenaurach, Germany, owned by Adidas AG (FRA:ADS).
Helga Ying, vice president for external engagement and social responsibility at American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (NYSE:AEO) of Pittsburgh
Beth Butterwick, CEO of Bonmarche Holdings PLC (LON:BON)
Philip Chamberlain, head of sustainable business development, C&A Europe of Dusseldorf, Germany
Adam Creasey, trade director of global sourcing for Debenhams PLC (LON:DEB), based in London
Charles Dickinson, head of global quality management and sustainability for Esprit Holdings Ltd. (HKG:0330), based in Ratingen, Germany
Jane Randel, senior vice president of corporate communications and corporate social responsibility at New York City-based Fifth and Pacific Companies Inc. (NYSE:FNP), formerly Liz Claiborne. (Interesting note: Television personality Tim Gunn is the company’s creative director.)
Bobbi Silten, senior vice president of global responsibility at San Francisco-based Gap Inc. (NYSE:GPS)
Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability, and Karl Gunnar Fagerlin, general manager, at Stockholm-based Hennes & Mauritz AB (STO:HM-B)
Felix Poza, global CSR director, Inditex SA (MCE:ITX) of Arteixo, Spain, owner of the Zara brand
Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, the Brussels-based world’s largest trade union federation
David Love, chief supply chain officer at San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co.
Tracy Nilsson, director of global sustainability for Vancouver-based Lululemon Athletica Inc. (NASDAQL:LULU)
Krishan Hundal, director of sourcing at London-based Marks & Spencer Group PLC (LON:MKS)
Chris Grayer, manager of global code of practice at Next PLC (LON:NXT), based in Enderby, U.K.
Juerg von Niederhaeusern, head of sustainability and social compliance at Zurich-based Federation of Migros Cooperatives
Roger Wightman, managing director at New Look Retail Group Ltd.
Nick Athanasakos, vice president of global sourcing and manufacturing, and Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation, at Nike Inc. (NYSE:NKE) of Beaverton, Ore. Stefanie Reichenbach, head of corporate social responsibility at Orsay
Paul Lister, company secretary of London-based Associated British Foods
Reiner Hengstmann, global director a Puma SA, owned by Puma AG Rudolf Dassler Sport (ETR:PUM) of Herzoggenaurach, Germany
Roopa Nair, vice president for human rights, at New York City-based PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Heritage Brands
Ira M. Dansky, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary at New York City-based The Jones Group Inc. (NYSE:JNY), a marketer and wholesaler of clothing, shoes and accessories under numerous brand names including Anne Klein, Nine West and Dockers
Michael J. Widman, vice president of international labor standards at The Walt Disney Company
Michael Levine, senior counsel and senior director of corporate social responsibility at Baltimore-based Under Armour, Inc.
Phillip Jennings, general secretary at UNI Global Union, a global union federation based in Nyon, Switzerland
Jan Saumweber, vice president of ethical sourcing, and Ignacio Lopez, senior vice president of global sourcing operations at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT), based in Bentonville, Ark.