Cambodia’s garment industry is under renewed scrutiny after Human Rights Watch accused the local government of failing to protect its workers from myriad labor-rights abuses. In a report released Wednesday, the international watchdog says it found evidence of forced overtime, inadequate rest breaks, use of child labor below the legally permissible age of 15, and anti-union practices at factories that produce clothing for brands such as Adidas, Gap, Marks & Spencer, and H&M. In addition, women workers faced pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, and denial of maternity benefits.
Some of the worst working conditions in Cambodia, according to the group, occur in smaller, typically unlicensed facilities that act as subcontractors for larger, export-oriented factories. Many of them use casual or short-term contracts as a means of controlling workers or to avoid paying benefits. Workers are also less likely to assert their rights for fear of losing their jobs.
At the center of Cambodia’s troubled industrial relations, however, is a lack of accountability, both on the part of authorities and retailers.
“The Cambodian government is primarily responsible for ensuring compliance with international human rights law, including labor rights. However, international clothing and footwear brands have a responsibility to promote respect for workers’ rights throughout their supply chains, including both direct suppliers and subcontractor factories,” writes Aruna Kashyap, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. “Many brands have not fully lived up to these responsibilities due to poor supply-chain transparency, the absence of whistle-blower protections, and failure to help factories correct problems in situations where that is both possible and warranted.”
Even brands that claim the highest ethical standards continue to withhold information about their suppliers. “Very few international clothing brands disclose the names and locations of their production units—suppliers and subcontractors—even though disclosures can help workers and labor advocates to alert brands to labor-rights violations in factories producing for them,” Kashyap says. “Such disclosure is neither impossible nor prohibitively expensive and there appears to be no valid reason for brands to withhold this information.”
Human Rights Watch says the Cambodian government should bear the brunt of improving labor conditions in the country’s garment industry. At the same time, influential actors such as brands, Better Factories Cambodia, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, and unions must all play their part in ensuring that working conditions in factories abide by the Labor Law and international standards.
“The garment industry plays a critical role in Cambodia’s economy, including by employing a large number of women,” Kashyap says. “While paying attention to individual labor rights concerns, the structural issues that underlie a range of labor rights problems—hiring practices, union-busting strategies, and unauthorized subcontracting—need urgent attention.”