Trade, Monitoring, and the ILO: Working to Improve Conditions in Cambodia's Garment Factories

Article excerpt

The U.S.-Cambodia Bilateral Textile Trade Agreement, signed on January 20, 1999, was remarkable for its inclusion of a labor standards provision that created incentives for the Cambodian garment industry to bring itself into substantial compliance with international labor standards and Cambodian labor law. The labor standards provision provided the impetus for the creation of a novel program, to be operated by the International Labor Organization (ILO). This program combined trade-related incentives to enforce workers" rights with an unprecedented plan to have the ILO conduct factory-level monitoring of working conditions. This Article examines how the program was designed and implemented and evaluates the proposals and conceptions that preceded the final project document. This analysis provides a case study on how to construct and implement future programs that combine trade and factory monitoring to improve working conditions and enforce core labor rights along the global supply chain.

I. INTRODUCTION

With a population of ten million people, an extremely small GDP, and a fledgling export market, Cambodia is perhaps an unlikely candidate for cutting-edge experiments in linking trade with labor rights. Nevertheless, on January 20, 1999 the U.S. and Cambodian governments signed the U.S./Cambodia Bilateral Textile Trade Agreement. (1) The Agreement was remarkable for its inclusion of a labor standards provision creating incentives for the Cambodian garment industry to bring itself into substantial compliance with international labor standards and Cambodian labor law. This compliance was to be facilitated through the creation of a program to improve labor standards in the garment sector. The program was eventually to be operated by the International Labor Organization (ILO). (2)

The ILO's program in Cambodia is novel because it combines approaches to enforcing and protecting labor rights normally thought of as distinct because they target enforcement in two different realms. First, it uses trade related incentives to enforce workers' rights. Scholars and workers' rights advocates have argued that to achieve these ends trade agreements ought to include workers' rights clauses that condition trading privileges on enforcement of labor rights by signatories to the agreement. (3)

This strategy is generally aimed at the public regulatory level: it aims to compel states to enact and apply adequate public labor regulation. The Cambodia project represents one of the first and most creative experiments in linking trade privileges to the respect of labor rights in trade agreements. (4)

Second, the Cambodia project harnesses the power of factory level monitoring of labor rights compliance. Some have suggested that the most effective way to regulate and police global supply chains is to allow private actors--usually corporations--to implement and monitor codes of conduct along the supply chain. (5) This strategy aims to improve respect for workers' rights at the factory level, mostly outside of the public regulatory framework. Some commentators and advocates, particularly trade unions, have suggested that self-regulated codes of conduct are at best inadequate, and at worst an insidious device to replace unions and public regulation with voluntary enforcement by private actors. (6) The Cambodia program is unique within this debate because it is the ILO, an international organization, that conducts the factory monitoring--not private companies or NGOs. The program serves not only as a mechanism to report on labor conditions in factories, but as a kind of supplement to and temporary replacement for Cambodia's inadequate national regulatory system, which does not, and perhaps cannot, enforce international labor standards or its own labor law. (7)

In what follows, I examine the way in which the Cambodia ILO monitoring program was designed and implemented, and analyze the proposals and conceptions that preceded the final project document. …