PHNOM PENH: Garment workers at a source factory for global fashion brands including H&M said they are being paid Cambodia's minimum wage – just US$140 per month – forcing them to plead for overtime hours to improve their earnings.
Several workers told Channel NewsAsia that they were being paid the lowly sum while working in difficult conditions in a factory outside central Phnom Penh.
“It is very hot inside,” said “Chan”, who has been working at a factory producing shirts, pants, hats and scarves for five years. She said other brands produced at the factory include Marks & Spencer, Mango and ASDA.
“I cannot have good living conditions with my salary because everything is so expensive now.” She and several other colleagues said they need to work longer than their eight-hour daily shifts in order to be paid extra on top of their monthly salary.
“Raksa”, 29, an employee at the factory for the past 13 years, said the situation has only gotten worse since she first started. “I worked in this factory since 2003, and I thought that the conditions in the past were much better than the present,” she said, adding that she wanted to stay on at the factory if more work, or ideally a better salary, was available.
Their claims echo a recent report by Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) highlighting the precarious nature of industry workers around the world, with a particular focus on Cambodia and India. It calls out H&M for “a public relations facade to cover up systemic abuse”, listing “gaps in implantation of commitments” and “violations of international labour standards” throughout the Swedish multinational company's global network and makes a number of recommendations for the fast fashion giant to implement, including a raft of worker protections.
The report also acknowledged, however, a visible effort by H&M to make changes – reduced overtime, higher wages and increased worker satisfaction. But a lack of transparency across the sector has made a full assessment difficult. For instance, a “model factory” testing a fair wage programme implemented by H&M in Cambodia is still reportedly off limits to observers.
In a statement to Channel NewsAsia, H&M said it was committed to “increased improvements” in countries such as Cambodia, citing its efforts for many years to promote worker welfare.
“The report raises important issues and we are dedicated to contribute to positive long-term development for the people working in the textile industry in our sourcing markets,” said communications spokesperson Therese Sundberg. "The issues addressed in the report are industry-wide problems. They are often difficult to address as an individual company and we firmly believe that collaboration is key.”
On its website, H&M lauds its responsible-partner policies, emphasising the job-creating opportunities it provides in emerging markets. “We choose to work with partners who are doing right by people and right by the environment,” it said.
Those statements though have been decried by a local union – the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union – which said the “PR rings hollow to workers struggling every day to feed their families”.
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS
On a daily basis, hundreds of workers, mostly women, can be seen entering factory premises, walking or riding by a large metal gate, which is opened only around meal breaks and when shifts end. Security officers man the entrance, taking notes of any vehicles entering.
Scenes like this play out across Cambodia’s 500-odd factories, which employ about 700,000 local workers. Most of these factories are foreign-owned by investors from countries like China, Malaysia and South Korea, and their output makes garment exports Cambodia’s largest.
Access to factory floors is prohibited to all non-workers, including trade union officials and non-government organisation (NGO) representatives. The head of one of Cambodia’s leading trade unions said despite his role, he cannot monitor what goes on behind factory gates.
Chea Mony, the president of the Free Trade Union of Workers (FTU) admitted that major issues exist within the industry, but said trade unions are largely powerless to make systematic change.
He noted that from his research, empirically, factories that produced H&M products did in fact appear to treat workers better. But he said sector corruption, competition and secrecy engrained the practices that cause much hardship for individuals.
“It is true that some factories require workers to work overtime,” he said. “For example, if there are so many orders from the company, the factory will lie to say that it can deliver the product on time.
“However, they don’t have enough workers to get the products done, so the workers need to work extra to get it done.”
That extra work is the only way workers can supplement the minimum wage, which has been central to many disputes by workers and unions in recent years. Several strikes and deadly protests as a result have further tarnished the local industry.
The minimum wage has seen a steady increase from US$61 in 2012 to the US$140 mark in 2016. However, AFWA in its calculation of a viable “living wage” – money for food, rent, healthcare, education, clothing, transportation and savings – this sum still falls well short.
It estimates that garment workers need 1.6 million riel (US$393) per month in order for them and their family to live with dignity.
H&M said it wants to fully implement a “fair living wage” by 2018 and reported it paid workers US$216 per month in its Cambodia pilot project, a figure which was unverified, according to AFWA.
For the workers in Phnom Penh, any small increase could benefit their lives significantly. “I really hope that I can get around US$300 per month,” Chan said. “I hope that the factory can be honest with the workers and keep the workers as their partners.”