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WORK CONDITIONS IMPROVE AT CAMBODIAN FACTORIES

NEW YORK -- In what it called evidence that monitoring foreign factories can help improve working conditions, the International Labour Organization said it found "encouraging signs of improvement" in its third round of inspections of Cambodian...

NEW YORK — In what it called evidence that monitoring foreign factories can help improve working conditions, the International Labour Organization said it found “encouraging signs of improvement” in its third round of inspections of Cambodian garment factories.

This story first appeared in the July 3, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The Geneva-based labor group is monitoring 30 factories in that nation as part of a joint project with the U.S. and Cambodian governments in which Cambodia can be awarded increased U.S. quota rights if working conditions in its industry are found to improve. In turn, Cambodia increases the quota allotted to the factories found to provide the best conditions for workers.

Like the previous two quarterly reports, the one released Monday found no evidence of child labor, forced labor or sexual harassment in the 30 factories the ILO inspected.

The report noted that inspectors found improvements in factory practices including paying correct wages, insuring that all overtime is voluntary and within legal limits, and protecting freedom of association. However, the report said these areas remained “a problem” for several of the factories inspected. It also noted that strikes continue not to be organized in accordance with Cambodian laws.

“What’s important about this report is that, in every single factory we had gone back to, there was some improvement,” Sally Paxton, ILO executive director of social dialog, said in a phone interview. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done.”

The factories included in the survey had about 21,000 workers, 90 percent of whom were women. Cambodia’s total apparel industry includes about 200 factories with 200,000 workers, producing $1.1 billion worth of exported goods last year, according to the Cambodian Development Resource Institute. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, the U.S. imported $952.6 million of apparel and textiles from Cambodia last year, making it the 21st-largest source of those goods.

The survey, conducted by ILO-trained inspectors, addressed safety concerns, respect for workers’ rights and payroll practices. Many of the problems found were wage-and-hour issues, which are frequent at cost-conscious and often time-pressed apparel contractors around the world.

With each survey, the ILO makes recommendations of improvements the factories can make. It then checks up on them in follow-up surveys. This report showed that 18 of the 30 factories had solved less than half the problems brought up in the first two rounds of inspections.

Paxton said that’s because many of the problems raised, particularly those related to workers’ right to organize, are complicated.

“Some of these things we are finding can be fixed quite simply,” she said. “But allowing freedom of association and collective bargaining are harder than making sure that you have clean toilet facilities.”

She noted that the ILO’s overall goal in this project is to educate local employers, unions and government officials about workers’ rights so that the industry will be able to operate on its own in a way that respects labor.

“The ILO can’t be in these countries forever,” she said. “If unions and employers are doing their jobs…and working together, the need for government intervention should be quite small.”

Paxton said the program has attracted more U.S. and European apparel firms to the Southeast Asian nation of 12.5 million people, which borders Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. She listed Gap Inc. and Levi Strauss & Co. as companies currently producing in Cambodia.

A Gap spokeswoman confirmed the San Francisco-based company is currently buying goods from Cambodian factories. She said projects like the ILO’s in Cambodia are valuable for the breadth of companies they affect.

“Industry-wide reforms is what you’re looking for,” she said. “What we’ve found with our own initiatives is what you really want is all factories to be participating in the program.”

Levi’s officials did not return phone calls by press time.

She said she hoped the Cambodian governments’ interest in promoting workers’ rights could be used by the local industry as a marketing tool.

“It can create for itself a niche market, of `We open our factories to monitoring,”‘ she said. “Buyers in the U.S. are quite aware of the consumer concerns about the way in which products are produced.”

Currently, the ILO monitoring project and a related program to set up a system to resolve labor disputes is slated to run at least another year.

“This is a process, not something that we expect to have done overnight,” Paxton said. “One hundred percent compliance, that doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s a process of the employers understanding that they have to start complying with the law.”