Garment factory workers are facing this week’s EU decision on trade sanctions with trepidation: Most are in debt; they are being squeezed by new government policies to reduce costs for employers; and business at their factories seems to be slowing.
An estimated 800,000 workers in the industry could be affected as the EU announces whether to suspend duty-free trade with Cambodia under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) deal over political and human rights concerns.
The EU has gone through a yearlong process to assess whether Cambodia has met EBA requirements, and has signaled that legal pressure on labor leaders and the dismantling of the country’s political opposition will be enough to warrant a suspension. It has demanded “real and credible improvement,” but the main opposition CNRP remains banned, and its president, Kem Sokha, is currently under trial for treason.
In Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, Yang Samean said she feared the impact on her and other garment factory workers if the EBA is removed. The EU and U.S. markets buy the bulk of Cambodian garment exports.
“I think most workers don’t know what it will mean,” said the 27-year-old. But if factories close, “it will force us to leave our homeland to work foreign countries.”
Samean said she was in debt — like most of her colleagues — and could not afford to lose her job.
In recent days her factory, Akeentext on Veng Sreng Road, seemed not to have enough work for all its employees, she said. Its owner also recently told the workers to speed up their production — a possible sign of the factory anticipating a squeeze on its finances.
Bi Sophy, another worker at the factory, said the problem seemed to be that the factory could not get enough raw materials.
“Now the big buyers don’t provide raw materials for the workers to use because they’re scared about the EBA problem,” Sophy, a 45-year-old who has worked at the factory for 10 years, said.
Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Sour could not be reached for comment. However, he told the Phnom Penh Post that the slowing of business at garment factories wasn’t due to the looming EBA decision, but China’s coronavirus scare.
“In March, some factories might have to close or lay off employees. This is not because of the EBA issue,” he said. Chinese factories that supply raw materials remained closed following the Lunar New Year due to the virus, he told the Post.
Seang Vichet, 36, a union representative at the Southland garment factory, said workers were already under pressure after the government removed six public holidays and reduced nighttime wages to cut costs for businesses.
“Our workers are not ready for the EBA problem,” Vichet said.
Lahn Neang, 26, who frequently works the night shift at Kandal province’s E-Garment factory, said the previous law of giving nighttime workers 130 percent of the daytime rate already wasn’t enough considering the strain of the job.
She worked 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. with just a one-hour break, she said.
“I only get 30 percent more to work at night shift, and it drains my energy,” she said. “Most of the time I can only sleep one or two hours during the day because it’s so hot in the dorm … and it’s very loud.”
She takes sick leave four or five days every month from exhaustion, and worries about workplace injuries at her embroidery machine because she works while drowsy, she said.
The new policy removes the 30 percent bonus for nighttime work, making its rate equal to daytime work.
Pav Sina, president of Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said the financial pressure on the industry was likely to extend to this year’s minimum wage negotiations.
“Investors will require that employers reduce their expenditures because of the EBA issue,” Sina said. Unions would have a hard time securing a raise for workers, he said.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, could not be reached for comment.
Last year, the World Bank estimated that exports to the EU could fall by $650 million if the EBA is suspended.
At Phnom Penh’s Callisto Apparel factory, workers said they really did not what to expect. Kim Hong, 40, said she just hoped the factory would not be forced to close. Her colleague, Nuth Srey Pov, 22, added that the workers would not simply accept a loss of their jobs.
“If there’s a problem for the workers, we will not keep quiet,” Srey Pov said.