PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In a bid to address the growing traffic fatalities affecting the apparel sector, representatives of 12 major clothing retailers — including H&M, Gap and Puma — met here this week to discuss a strategy to improve road safety for factory employees as they commute to work.
Cambodia has long been plagued by a lack of serious enforcement of road safety and traffic regulations, with traffic accidents being the nation’s leading cause of death. The problem is especially acute in the apparel sector as data from the Ministry of Labor’s National Social Security Fund — which investigates and compensates workplace injuries — shows that industry workers were involved in 4,300 traffic accidents last year, resulting in 60 fatalities.
So far this year, there have been more than 2,200 traffic accidents involving apparel industry workers that have left more than 3,200 injured and 42 dead.
Esther Germans, program manager of the International Labor Organization’s Better Factories Program — which facilitated the meeting between the brands on Wednesday — said that while this is a nationwide issue, “it has specific characteristics for the garment sector.”
“It’s bigger than garment factories. We have been struggling with finding our entry point to what we can do about it because it’s about a lack of good traffic habits, the need for transportation, the lack of enforcement of the law,” she said before the meeting. “It’s not within our control, but it is the brands’ concern as it involves the safety of the garment factory workers.”
Workers commute daily to factories on open-air, flat-bed trucks which typically only provide standing room. The truck companies are often unregulated and unlicensed and provide the workers with the cheapest option of getting to factories. Cramped onto the back of these precarious vehicles, workers usually grip the trucks’ metal railings to hold themselves steady as they hurtle down underdeveloped roads.
Laura Wilkinson, Gap Inc. spokesman, said that the retailer, along with 11 others that source from Cambodia, have formed a Brands Working Group on Worker Safety Transportation to try to put an end to this growing problem.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that a solution is needed to address the issue of worker transportation safety and that a lasting solution will require engagement from a wide range of stakeholders, including the garment industry, labor, global brands, civil society and the Cambodian government,” she said. “[We] hope to play a constructive role as part of the solution to this critical issue.”
Kerstin Neuber, head of Puma’s corporate communications, confirmed that the German activewear brand will support any initiative that improves road safety conditions, although she stopped short of including any reform outside of the company’s five supplier factories.
“We have set ourselves a target of zero fatal accidents at our direct manufacturing partners. Transportation of employees is included in this target if it is organized by the factory/employer,” Neuber explained, adding that while the brand has only a small number of supplier factories in Cambodia, that does not diminish the value of the workers who stitch their products.
“It is correct that we have only a limited number of suppliers in Cambodia. Nevertheless, we will not accept a risk to the lives of the workers in these factories who manufacture Puma goods,” she said. “We are, of course, aware that as a small brand, we will not be able to influence the general road safety conditions of a country. However, we hope to achieve a consensus on which good-practices factories we can implement to minimize the risk as far as possible.”
(While Neuber had stated that Puma is “small,” the German multinational is actually one of the most recognized activewear brands in the world. Pulling in 3.4 billion euros in revenues in 2015, its star is likely to continue rising with the success of brand ambassador Rihanna’s latest launch of Fenty for Puma as well as its sponsorship of Olympic champion Usain Bolt.)
A spokesman for Adidas confirmed that it is part of the working group, which would work with the government, the manufacturers’ association, the ILO and GIZ, a German development agency that published a study on this issue earlier this year.
“Occupational safety does not relate only to what happens once a worker enters his/her place of employment,” said Silvia Raccagni, who is with Adidas’ sustainability communications department. “When we consider the overall supplier safety in Cambodia, the single largest cause of worker injuries, or fatalities is due to traffic accidents, hence our interest and involvement in the Cambodia transportation initiative.”
Levi Strauss said that while none of its suppliers’ workers have been involved in accidents, the company is “deeply concerned about the continued traffic accidents.” H&M and Dutch retailer C&A also threw their support behind the working group, emphasizing the need to find “short- and long-term solutions.”
In the past year, the government has tried to tackle the growing road safety issue by imposing fines and punishments for traffic offenses that include high-speed driving on the wrong side of the road or under the influence of alcohol, and driving overloaded vehicles. Still, these scenes are common in Phnom Penh and while the traffic police have an increased presence in the city center, the outskirts — where the factories are located — are still largely unregulated.
Labor rights groups and unions have long argued that a simple solution to this issue is to raise the minimum wage, which currently stands at $140 a month. Manufacturers have hit back at the idea, saying that workers can lobby for a safer solution as they often move in groups. Much of the blame has also been levied at the government for the lack of traffic law enforcement.
William Conklin, head of American labor rights group Solidarity Center, said that the road safety issue has been “20 years in the making” as there has been little strategy and planning for the apparel sector as it has expanded.
“Now it is a complicated issue with no easy solution. A series of short-term and long-term measures are needed, as well as a whole new approach to situating factories and the location of the industry,” he said, adding that brands are in a unique position of being able to gather information from its supplier factories.
“No set of solutions can be effective without brands taking responsibility and being accountable,” Conklin said.
Im Phearom, an 18-year-old worker from Svay Rieng province, just focuses on getting to work daily. Im remembers clearly how she was once in a truck with 70 other workers when it crashed into a motorbike, throwing all the passengers onto the ground. “The motorbike driver died and many of us on the trucks got injured,” she said, adding that she also got a cut on her eye.
While Im acknowledges the danger of getting into the rickety trucks every day to get to and from work, she said that she has no other options. The only insurance against danger she has is to pray for a smooth road.
“I pay $16 every month for transportation to go from work and home. I cannot afford to save money from work to buy a motorbike to drive to work, so I force myself to travel in these crowded trucks,” Im said. “I always pray to Buddha to save us from any road accidents.”