Global brands are not very famous when it concerns upholding workers’ rights. Critics more often than not feel they have much to do to ensure better living and working standards for those who stitch for them. Their sourcing strategies based on the criteria that the order goes to the one who offers the cheapest price allegedly leads to workers’ exploitation.
However, in a show of solidarity with the workers, names like Levi’s, H&M and Gap Inc. have recently backed a ruling that restricts the use of short-term contracts for garment workers in the Cambodian garment manufacturing sector.
The global biggies said they stood by Arbitration Council’s ruling that a factory supplying them must give permanent contracts to 408 workers it employed on a short-term basis.
“We have made it clear that the factory must comply with the Arbitration Council ruling,” said H&M spokeswoman Ulrika Isaksson while speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It may be mentioned here that according to critics, short-term contract is used as a potent tool by garment makers in Cambodia to control workers and silence their dissent. The ruling as such holds a lot of significance as it could force others to toe the line and follow suit.
“With short-term contracts, we are totally vulnerable. They can dismiss us at any time… Everything is in their hands,” underlined Soeun Sophos, one of the 408 claimants in the case, who reportedly has been stitching clothes for H&M for six years.
“We have communicated to all our suppliers in Cambodia our expectations that vendors adhere to rulings made by the Labour Arbitration Council,” stated Gap spokeswoman Debbie Felix on the ruling.
It may be mentioned here that according to a survey carried out by monitoring group Better Factories Cambodia in 464 manufacturing units, more than two-thirds of workers said bosses were illegally using the short-term contracts.
“Threats of contract non-renewal are used to force workers into working regular overtime, meeting excessive production targets and from engaging in independent trade unionism,” alleged Executive Director of the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights Moeun Tola, adding, “Bosses love short-term contracts because as soon as a worker is brave enough to stand up for their rights, they can silence the dissent.”
It may be mentioned here that Cambodian garment industry, which employs around 700,000 people, contributing around 40 per cent of GDP, has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately.
In January this year, about 1,200 staff from garment factories supplying for brands including H&M and Marks & Spencer were terminated after a mass strike.
This sacking fuelled long-standing anxieties about job security and the fight for decent working conditions.
“It sends a kind of fear through the industry, particularly for those workers who have a limited knowledge of the law,” said Khun Tharo, a Programme Coordinator at the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights then adding, “It is not 100 per cent clear how the new rules should be implemented, and I am concerned that without more education on that, we could be heading towards another period of labour unrest.”
In 2014, at least three people were killed and several others injured after police opened fire on textile workers protesting against low wages, which brought the plight of the Cambodian garment workers in global limelight for the first time.
The move by Levi’s, H&M and Gap Inc, under the given circumstances, industry insiders feel, could go a long way towards improving the workers’ lot.