RAISING LABOUR STANDARDS IN CAMBODIA: Here's One Trade Deal That's Proved Beneficial for Workers

Article excerpt

Nike, Disney, and other brand-name clothing firms left Cambodia in the 1990s after being publicly tagged as violators of international labour standards-especially the exploitation of child labour. Now, once again, you can find a Made in Cambodia label on clothes with a Swoosh or a Disney princess on them. Why? Mostly because of the U.S. Cambodia Textile Agreement.

Many trade agreements have labour standards, but their enforcement of the standards is largely "aspirational." By contrast, to a significant degree, the U.S. Cambodia Textile Agreement (UCTA) enforced its labour standards. From 1999 to 2005, when it expired, the UCTA was the only trade agreement to publicly monitor compliance with its labour standards. These included the International Labour Organization (ILO) core labour standards: freedom of association and collective bargaining, elimination of forced labour and discrimination, and abolition of child labour. They also included Cambodian standards related to hours of work, minimum wages, and other areas.

The UCTA was also the only trade agreement to link labour standards enforcement to increased trade access via bonus quotas. These were a significant inducement for employers to enforce the standards. The UCTA was also unique in using the ILO to monitor the factories-an important step toward a more public, state-centred regulation of labour standards. So beneficial was this monitoring that the ILO, Cambodian government, exporters, unions and workers, as well as foreign importers, have agreed to extend it past the life of the UCTA. It continues today.

Although it is far from perfect, the UCTA demonstrates that a trade agreement can create a reasonably stable floor for international labour standards, and it can do so even in one of the poorest countries - and in an industry that is among the most competitive, labour-intensive, and geographically mobile in the world.

The UCTA was partly a response to the militancy of Cambodian workers in a context in which labour standards were frequently violated. Among common violations were debt bondage, illegally excessive and forced overtime, wage infractions, repression of union organizing and worker dissent, poor occupational health and safety conditions, and many other contraventions of Cambodian and international standards. It was also a response to international media revelations of child labour and other evidence of sweatshop conditions in Cambodia. A 1998 exposé of child labour at a Nike factory was especially damaging to Nike's reputation, leading it to stop sourcing from Cambodia. The UCTA stemmed, too, from political pressures in the U.S. In the wake of job losses related to the North American Free Trade Agreement, workers and their allies mobilized against the offshoring of U.S. jobs. To demonstrate a positive link between labour standards and trade, they pushed the Clinton administration to include labour standards in the UCTA.

At the request of the U.S. and Cambodian governments, and Cambodia's labour unions and garment manufacturers' association, the ILO agreed to monitor the implementation of the labour standards in the garment sector. The ILO project was designed to:

* develop and maintain an independent system to monitor working conditions in garment factories;

* help draft new laws and regulations for improving working conditions and to make labour laws more effective;

* increase worker and employer awareness of core international labour standards and of their rights under Cambodian labour law; and

* increase worker, employer, and government capacities to improve working conditions and to comply with national and international labour standards.

The project was overseen by a committee with equal representation from Cambodia's government, manufacturers and unions. Although factory registration was voluntary, only registered factories were eligible for export quotas. Registration entitled ILO monitors to enter factories unannounced and to interact freely with workers and union representatives. …