By  on February 8, 2012

A tribunal organized by trade unions and worker’s rights advocacy groups concluded in Phnom Penh today, calling on the Cambodian government to review the wages and working conditions of garment industry workers.

The recommendations were issued by the People’s Tribunal, a five-man panel of judges invited by the International Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Asia Floor Wage Cambodia, two groups that seek to raise minimum wage levels in the region. It came after two days of testimony in the capital of the Southeast Asian state by international brands, industry workers and witnesses from international worker’s rights groups.

“The situation of workers...presents severe deficits which correspond to a systematic violation of their fundamental right to a decent human life,” the panel said.

It called on the government to specify the right to a minimum living wage and ensure that trade unions are allowed to act freely. The tribunal, which was led by Gianni Tognoni, general secretary of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an Italian-based independent organization, also recommended that brands that produce in Cambodia review wage standards and implement mechanisms for monitoring compliance with health and safety regulations.

“We are pleased with the verdict,” said Anannya Bhattacharjee, coordinator for the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. “The judges have said specifically that the brands need to revise their pricing and procuring policies. We think that is decisive.”

Cambodia’s garment industry has had a rocky two years. Last August, 284 workers fainted while working at a factory run by M&V International Mfg., a supplier to Swedish label H&M. In June, 49 workers fainted while working at a factory producing goods for Puma. Among the reasons cited for the faintings were poor ventilation, malnutrition and excessive overtime.

There have also been recent bouts of industrial action. In September 2010, tens of thousands of workers embarked on a week-long strike seeking an increase in the minimum wage from $61 to $93 a month. The minimum wage has since been hiked to $66. In major cities in neighboring Vietnam, the minimum wage is $95.

The Asian Floor Wage Alliance said that unions are hindered from organizing. As recently as November, hundreds of workers working at Cambo Handsome Ltd., a factory that produces for Gap, embarked on industrial action after union representatives were suspended on what union leaders called “trumped-up charges” for stealing. At the time, a representative for Cambo Handsome called the strikes “illegal.”

Observers also say there is widespread use of short-term employment contracts. An August 2011 report by Yale Law School said that this policy denies “workers statutory benefits and…[restricts] their exercise of rights under international and Cambodian law.”

While the likes of Inditex, the world’s largest clothing retailer, and the U.K.’s Marks & Spencer also produce garments in Cambodia, the People’s Tribunal only invited four labels — Gap, H&M, Adidas and Puma — to provide testimony. Anna McMullen of Labour Behind The Label, a British group supporting Asia Floor Wage, said the brands were chosen because “they source the largest volumes and are well known internationally.”

Of the four labels, only Adidas and Puma took part in the tribunal, according to the event’s organizers. H&M provided evidence but did not send a representative because it had “many other engagements” at the time, said a company spokeswoman.

Speaking before the release of the tribunal’s recommendations, the H&M spokeswoman said the company was “very interested in reading the report and [continuing] the ongoing dialogue” with worker’s rights groups. It said that an action plan had been put in place to improve factory conditions after the mass faintings.

Puma declined comment. In a statement issued after the June 2011 faintings at its supplier’s factory, the company said that it had taken measures such as installing additional ventilation and lighting for workers. Gap’s ethic sourcing department in London couldn’t be reached for comment.

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