Labour groups fear EU trade sanctions would exploit Cambodian garment workers


Labour rights activists have warned that tens of thousands of garment workers in Cambodia could face exploitation if proposed EU trade sanctions cause major fashion brands to downsize their operation.

The garment industry is Cambodia’s largest employer and generates USD7 billion annually, but it faces uncertainty after the European Union (EU) this year began a process that could see tariffs reintroduced next August.

The European Chamber of Commerce estimates that 90,000 jobs would be at risk if the EU suspended special trade preferences over Cambodia’s record on democracy and human rights.

A sourcing manager at Britain’s Primark said last week that European companies would “pull out of production” in Cambodia if trade preferences ended, while the head of production at Sweden’s H&M warned of a “substantial backlash”.

Workers who lose their jobs – mainly women – would likely end up in the entertainment or service industries, at bars and massage parlours, and be exposed to sexual exploitation, said Khun Tharo of the Centre for Alliance of Human and Labour Rights.

“There is no safety net in those sectors,” the charity’s program coordinator told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The alternative would be migrating to Thailand where two million Cambodians are estimated to work, many of them undocumented and vulnerable to modern-day slavery, he said.

“Either way, serious risks will be taken.”

Cambodia benefits from the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade programme, which allows the world’s least-developed nations to export most goods to the EU free of duties.

The bloc is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45 percent of its exports in 2018. Clothing factories in the country employ 700,000 workers, and garments make up a large share of exports to the EU, worth about USD5.5 billion.

Cambodia’s garment factories are estimated to employ one in every 25 people, most of them young women who provide for their extended families.

“These young women … in the garment industry, they are not just working for themselves,” said Sok Chea Hak, national coordinator at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. “It impacts close to one million households.” (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)