Key Labor Rights Abuses
I sit for 11 hours and feel like my buttocks are on fire. We can’t go to the toilet. We have to produce many lots [sets comprising 12 pieces].
—Keu Sreyleak (pseudonym), garment worker, group interview, factory 60, Phnom Penh, December 7, 2013
Workers in the sewing divisions of garment factories operate in assembly lines, divided into groups, where each group has an hourly or daily production target that varies by type of garment, its design, and difficulty level. Workers in other divisions—such as trimming excess thread, checking the quality of garments, or packaging—are also usually assigned production targets.
The workers Human Rights Watch spoke with had multiple complaints about how this target system was used to cheat them. Sometimes factory management promised extra money if the daily target was exceeded, usually in the range of 500 riels (US$0.12) to 3,000 riels ($0.75), but did not pay this even when workers met or surpassed such targets. For example, Nov Aem from factory 40 described how workers in the sewing division were promised 3,000 riels if they produced 130 blouses within 10 hours, but did not receive it despite exceeding the quota many times. Workers in factory 15 said they were forced to work overtime until 8 p.m. to meet the daily target but were not paid overtime wage rates if they could not meet the target.
Some workers complained that their targets were revised upwards, making it impossible to meet them. Preung Sophy, from factory 57, said: “They told me I am not producing enough pieces. But they keep raising the quota. First, it was eight lots, then it increased to 15 lots, then they made it 25, and now 30 [lots within the same amount of time].” Another worker from factory 60 said she had to produce 1,200 garments in 11 hours for difficult designs and 2,000 garments for simple designs. She continued: “When we reached 2,000, they made it 2,300, and then they made it 2,500. They make it difficult for us to reach this target.”
Workers from several factories said that their managers compensated for the hike in minimum wages in 2013 and 2014 by increasing the production quota. One worker from factory 66 said,
The quota for us [sewing division] was 80 per hour. But when the minimum wage was increased, they increased our quota to 90. If we don’t meet this we get screamed at a lot. They will say we are slow workers. We have to do overtime work. We cannot say no. We are like slaves—not workers. Even if we go to the toilet, they whistle for us to come back. We can’t even go to the toilet.
In one large factory supplying to international brands, a group of workers complained that engineering students were monitoring efficiency in their factory on behalf of H&M, adding more pressure and making it harder for them to take breaks. One of the workers in the group said,
They are now assessing how much time it takes to make a shirt. I don’t know what H&M is thinking but this is very difficult for workers.… We can’t rest…. For some types of shirts they are setting 2,000 as quota. We have to meet this quota every day. Otherwise we get shouted at.
H&M representatives told Human Rights Watch that they had not commissioned any study on productivity in their supplier factories. However, they said it is possible that one of their supplier factories was using students placed with them as part of H&M’s Skill Building program to do research on production targets without H&M’s knowledge. H&M committed to investigating this and reiterated that any supplier’s use of production targets without adequate rest breaks would be a violation of its Code of Conduct.
Many workers complained that managers who perceived them as being “slow” and “unproductive” derided and humiliated them, usually verbally. For example, workers from factory 15 reported how their manager regularly insulted and humiliated them: “Slut, bitch, you have a dog’s brain. Tell me, do you have a human brain or a dog’s brain? Work faster!”
Workers from a few factories reported that their managers physically intimidated them by banging desks or throwing garments at workers to make them work faster. For example, Phan Sarim from factory 16 described her manager’s behavior:
“You woman—you must learn to use that machine faster. Otherwise you can leave the factory. Do you understand?” And he would throw the materials we were supposed to stitch on the machine or on us, and bang the desk and come close to our face and scream. He is very harsh.
A 2012 ILO study in Cambodia reported that 54 percent of the workers who participated in the study reported harassment, including cursing, threatening, and throwing things.
Overtime work—work beyond the regular eight-hour day stipulated in the Labor Law—is pervasive in the garment industry.
Laws and regulations governing overtime require that it be limited to “exceptional or urgent work” and limit it to 12 hours per week, or about 2 hours per day. Labor regulations also stipulate that overtime work should be “voluntary” and employers should not penalize workers who choose not to do overtime work. Workers should be paid an overtime rate for their work after the regular eight hour work day. The overtime rates differ depending on whether the overtime work is performed on a week day, a weekly day off (typically Sunday), or on a public holiday.
Most of the workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported working between three and five hours of overtime per day.
BFC’s factory survey data since 2011-2 have consistently found that a majority of the factories surveyed did not limit overtime to two hours a day and the work was not “exceptional” in nature, with the most recent 2014 BFC report revealing that only 18 percent of the 371 factories surveyed limited overtime to 2 hours a day.>
Given the low monthly minimum wage levels—$80 in 2013 and $100 in 2014—many workers appreciate opportunities to earn overtime pay.
But the vast majority of workers Human Rights Watch interviewed said that overtime was seldom genuinely voluntary: they feared retaliation if they refused. Based on discussions with workers from 48 factories, Human Rights Watch found that while many workers sought overtime work to earn more money, they could not refuse without risking retaliation.
Retaliation for Refusing Overtime Work
Workers said factory managers marked workers who refused overtime work as “unproductive workers” and threatened contract non-renewal or dismissal. Workers from at least 14 factories gave examples of dismissals, wage deductions, and punitive transfers of workers from a monthly minimum wage to a more precarious piece-rate wage.
A worker from factory 49 recounted how managers fired two workers who lived far away from the factory and refused to do overtime work. “Workers who live there find it very hard to go home. They won’t reach home till 10 or 11 at night,” she explained. Both workers were called separately to the factory administrative office and told not return to work, she said. Other workers with similar concerns were warned: “If you don’t want to work here till 8 p.m. stay at home. You don’t have to come from tomorrow.”
In another case, in late November 2013, factory P allegedly fired 40 workers who refused to do overtime work lasting until 9 p.m. The workers lived very far from the factory and no trucks were available to transport them back to their villages. They protested that they wanted to leave at 6 p.m. The factory refused permission and fired all 40 workers. Eventually after about 20 days and negotiations with the union, about 20 of the workers were reinstated.
A worker from factory 71 described a similar case of mass dismissal of male factory workers who refused to do overtime work beyond 4 p.m. on a Sunday. She said: “The factory called the male workers and told them to do overtime till 6 on Saturday and again on Sunday. The workers who refused to do overtime until 6 [p.m.] on Sunday were all dismissed.”
Firing workers for requesting exemption from overtime work has a chilling ripple effect—other workers are deterred from seeking such permission. Khum Rachana explained how an incident from 2011 in her factory left all workers on short-term contracts so fearful for their jobs that they never dared to refuse overtime work since. She said,
In 2011 a worker requested permission to not do overtime work. The “Chinese” leader terminated her. I was with her that day. We were in the same [sewing] group. She went and asked for permission and she lost her job. We are too scared after that.
Three workers from factory 32, which kept workers on three-month FDCs, said the management told them: “If you don’t want to do OT [overtime] then we will find other workers who want to. You can leave the factory.”
A worker from factory 9 recalled an incident from November 2013:
A worker in my team wanted to leave early. We have to do overtime work till 9 p.m. every day. She had her period and had severe cramps and so requested that she will do overtime work only till 6 p.m. They shouted at her and said they would reduce $7 from her wages and not renew her contract. So she didn’t leave and continued to work.
Pouch Sopheap, 31 years old, from factory 16, was on a six-month FDC and said: “We cannot refuse OT. Only once in a while if we are really sick we can say no to OT. … Workers on UDC will ask [for exemption from overtime]—they are less scared than workers on FDC. We are very scared.”
Human Rights Watch also documented one case of a punitive transfer of a worker for seeking permission to refuse overtime work. One day in January 2014, Khay Nak wanted to leave the factory at 4 p.m. after working a regular eight-hour work day because his wife was unwell. When he sought written permission to be exempted from overtime, his manager tore up the application, he said. Defying orders, Khay Nak left the factory premises. The next day he returned to the factory to find that they had transferred him to another division where he would earn a piece-rate wage.
Undermining Workers Ability to Take Needed Breaks
A consistent complaint by workers from different factories—direct suppliers and subcontractors—was that they were forced to work without adequate breaks for trips to the bathroom or to get a drink of water. They found the restrictions, in place to pressure workers to meet production targets, inhumane.
Some workers reported that factory managers, to maximize workers’ time and meet production deadlines, placed excessive restrictions on their ability to use the restroom, take rest or water breaks, or eat their lunch. Cheng Thai from factory 11 said:
We have to sit and work till we finish the quota. If we work without a single break the whole day, we can produce 120 t-shirts an hour…They don’t allow the workers to take a break.…We cannot use the toilet even if we have diarrhea if we don’t get a toilet pass.
An Sineum from factory 14 said:
We cannot go to the toilet when we want. If we go three times during the day it is considered too much. They announce it on the speaker: “Don’t go to the toilet. You cannot produce a lot and meet your targets. You need to sew faster.”
The union president from factory 13 said management made such announcements regularly. Based on her discussions with garment workers in other factories who live around her, she believes such announcements are common.
Seng Sim, a worker on a long-term contract from factory 1 who has worked there for more than a decade, said that the newer workers were all given three- or six-month contracts. She said,
Nowadays even if we take one break then the Chinese leaders [administrative staff workers] take photos of this on their phone camera and say they will show this to admin. The building manager does this all the time. So workers are so scared they don’t take breaks—even if they are sick they continue to work.
Po Pov, in her 30s, works in the sewing division of factory 3 on a three-month contract. She said:
We don’t take breaks. It doesn’t matter whether you are pregnant or not—whether you are sick or not—you have to sit and work. If you take a break, the work piles up on the machine and the supervisor will come and shout. And if [a pregnant] worker is seen as working “slowly” then her contract will not be renewed. It has happened to workers I’ve been working with this year. Eight workers—one male and the rest women— were told their contracts will not be renewed. They don’t issue warnings. They just call you and tell you your contract will not be renewed.
Nov Vanny repeated a similar story from factory 18:
Workers are not allowed to go to the toilet. Sometimes they don’t even allow us to drink water. And I am scared so I don’t take a break. If I take a break then clothes will pile up on my desk. Depending on the design, I will have 30 or 50 pieces of clothing piled on my desk within five minutes. And then the manager will see it and say I am not a fast worker. They will point to the others who have not taken breaks and say: “If they have two hands and two legs and can sit here and work, why can’t you?”
Kith Nary, 36, said that in her sewing group in factory 10 they had to produce 800 skirts a day. They were forced to continue working till 8 or 9 p.m. until they finished the day’s assigned quota. “Sometimes they increased our quota to 1500 and cut our [one-hour] lunch break short and give us only 15 minutes to eat,” she said.
Overtime work and a lack of adequate nutrition are cited by NGOs as factors contributing to workers fainting in garment factories. Human Rights Watch did not seek to investigate the cause of incidents of mass fainting in the course of this research, though some workers had witnessed it.
Sick Leave and the “Killer Bonus”
The extent to which factories follow rules governing sick leave and payment of monthly attendance bonuses has a significant impact on workers’ health and rights. Contrary to a ruling by the Arbitration Council, some workers we spoke with had their entire monthly attendance bonus, or a large portion of it, deducted if they took even a single day of medically approved sick leave.
Cambodian Labor Law entitles workers to authorized sick leave for a maximum of six months. Sick leave should be certified by a qualified doctor. While the law does not make paid sick leave mandatory, the Labor Ministry encourages factories to provide 100 percent of wages during the first month of sick leave, and 60 percent of wages during the second and third months.
Workers are also entitled to a $10 attendance bonus if they attend work regularly for a full month. The Arbitration Council has ruled that where workers take sick leave authorized by a recognized medical practitioner, their attendance bonus must be paid in proportion to the days worked. So, for example, if a worker misses one day’s work and produces a medical certificate from a qualified practitioner, the factory management can deduct one day’s worth of the attendance bonus, or around $0.38 (1/26th of $10).
Factory managers, however, often deducted the entire or a disproportionate amount from the $10 attendance bonus instead of an amount proportional to the approved days a worker actually took off.
In practice, many workers—especially those on FDCs— said they felt unable to request sick leave for fear that they would be seen as “unproductive” and risk eventually having their contract not renewed.
Some factories allowed paid sick leave if workers produced medical certificates. In other cases, factories did not allow their employees even one day of paid sick leave. In these instances, workers reported having a flat rate deducted from their wage—for example $3 for every day absent from work. If workers in such factories asked for sick leave for four or five days, their employers told them to simply quit and rejoin when they felt better.
Some factories refused to accept medical certificates from private doctors and insisted that workers travel to government hospitals. But these could be far away and added transportation costs for workers. For example, workers from factory 43 said,
When we request sick leave the factory demands that the worker submit a medical certificate from big public hospitals—Calmette or Russian hospital [in Phnom Penh]. But workers cannot afford to go so far so they cannot take sick leave.
On weekdays workers were generally unable to take time off to visit the doctor; and on Sundays—usually their only day off—workers said government hospitals were closed, leaving them with no option but to visit a more expensive private doctor. Leouk Thary, in her 20s, said she was fired in November 2013 for refusing overtime work in her factory and seeking sick leave. She was hired on a four-month FDC. On the day she refused overtime work, Leouk Thary had a persistent nosebleed. Having already worked a full day, she wanted to leave without doing overtime. The factory manager refused permission and she left anyway. She produced a medical certificate and requested sick leave because she needed to have nose surgery. “I went to a private doctor because government hospitals do not work on Sundays. I only have time on Sundays to go to the doctor,” Leouk Thary explained. But despite having produced a medical certificate, they denied her sick leave and dismissed her. Han Che, who was fired from factory 29 said,
I was having stomach problem—a lot of pain in my stomach. I made an application for sick leave and they refused to grant it. I took four days off and came back to the factory. I had a doctor’s certificate. It was from a private hospital. But they refused to believe me and said they would not take me back to work. They said it was not from a public hospital. The public hospital is far away from my house.
Tola Meoun, a long-time labor rights activist from the Community Legal Education Center, described the attendance bonus as a “killer bonus” because of how workers often carried on working through illness and other problems to ensure that their attendance bonus stayed intact, as many employers manipulated deductions from the bonus. This financial penalty discouraged other workers from seeking sick leave.
Chhau San from factory 15 said:
If we have taken three days [sick] leave, then they deduct $20 from what we have earned. They say to us: “If you want to earn that money back, work more.” We only bring medical certificates because we feel they will scream at us less.
Treatment of Pregnant Workers
Many workers reported pregnancy-based discrimination at the time of hiring, contract renewal, and promotion. In addition, the pressure to meet production quotas limited pregnant workers’ ability to take rest breaks or sick leave, and led to disproportionate cuts of attendance bonuses. Workers from 30 factories either experienced or witnessed one or several of these problems.
Cambodian authorities have taken steps to improve women’s access to reproductive health care generally. However, more needs to be done to monitor actual practice and eliminate abuses in order to end workplace discrimination and facilitate pregnant workers’ access to health care.
Labor Law and Pregnancy
The Cambodian Constitution forbids employers from firing women on the basis of pregnancy, but is silent on pregnancy-based discrimination in hiring and promoting. The Labor Law forbids discrimination on the basis of sex at the time of “hiring, defining and assigning work, vocational training and advancement.” It also forbids factory managers from firing a pregnant worker just before she is about to take maternity leave.
In addition to protection against discrimination, the Labor Law entitles all women to three months of maternity leave. Women with a year’s uninterrupted service are also entitled to maternity pay—at the rate of half their average wages over the past 12 months.
Prohibition of sex discrimination includes prohibition of pregnancy-based discrimination. Cambodian Labor Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch in April 2014 that they penalize discrimination against pregnant workers. This is difficult to verify because the Labor Ministry does not disaggregate data about the complaints it receives by type of complaint.
Cambodian labor law does not explicitly provide workers a right to reasonable accommodation of their needs during pregnancy. However, unions have negotiated such accommodation through collective bargaining agreements. The law does provide, however, that mothers returning from maternity leave “are only expected to perform light work” for the first two months.
Many workers told Human Rights Watch that garment factories do not hire visibly pregnant women. Thach Sophal advised a pregnant friend to apply for a job during a recruitment drive at the factory where she worked. But factory managers turned the woman’s visibly four or five-month pregnant friend away. “When my friend went to the office, the official there said they did not need any workers,” she recalled. But the very next day they were recruiting workers. “I don’t know the number [of new workers recruited]—but there were many workers. There were also advertisements asking for new workers,” Sophal said.
A 2012 ILO study found that 72 percent of participants believed that factories discriminated at the time of hiring and 48 percent said they had experienced discrimination based on sex, pregnancy, marital status, or age.
Many workers we spoke with, especially those whose factories issued UDCs after two months’ probation, believed women who became visibly pregnant within the probation period were fired for that reason. For example, Nov Vanny recounted how a probation worker in her group hid her pregnancy in early 2013 for fear of being fired. She eventually got a special worker identity card issued to the woman so she could sit more often. Within a week of changing her worker ID, the pregnant friend was dismissed. Vanny told Human Rights Watch:
She was called separately to the admin office and fired but they gave her that month’s wages. She had not yet got her [UDC] contract—she was on probation… They shouldn’t know you are pregnant during probation—if they know—they will fire you.
In many cases, workers told us, pregnant women’s short-term contracts were not renewed when they became visibly pregnant, but proving pregnancy-based discrimination was almost impossible. The Arbitration Council has cast the onus of proving discrimination on pregnant women instead of on employers.
Desperate to avoid losing their jobs, some women tried to hide their pregnancy for as long as they could. “I have seen pregnant women who are five-months pregnant wear their skirts or clothes really tight and try to squeeze their belly in so they can hide the pregnancy,” said Chhorn Sokha, a former garment worker and decades-long labor rights activist from the Community Legal Education Center.
Workers described how pregnant women’s contracts were suddenly terminated. In late 2011, two weeks before she was about to have her first baby, managers called Po Pov and told her to leave the factory. She had been working on a three-month FDC. She said her decision to abort her second pregnancy in 2012 was motivated in part by the fear of losing her job again.
Seng Phalla from factory 1 said her factory regularly refused to renew the FDCs of visibly pregnant workers. Her friend was on a three-month FDC that was repeatedly renewed. In mid-2013, “[w]hen she was seven-months pregnant, she went to the administrative staff and asked them about maternity leave and pay. They said her contract was not going to be renewed and she won’t get anything,” Seng Phalla said.
Sok Chanthy from factory 27 recounted how in 2013 a colleague from her sewing group was told her six-month FDC would not be renewed when she was seven-months pregnant.
In November 2013, Chhon Chantha recalled that her factory managers had refused to renew the contract of a visibly pregnant friend shortly before we met with her. “They told her to leave the factory and paid her $130. I don’t know if that was meant to be maternity benefit but they gave her that money and told her not to return,” she said.
Ly Sim, a garment worker in her late 20s, was promoted because she could make 350 pairs of underwear in an hour. “I got $20 more [after the promotion],” she said. About four months after her promotion, Ly Sim became pregnant and took one day off every month for an antenatal check. Her supervisors told her she could not be a group leader anymore. They reduced her salary and demoted her. Eventually, when she was six-months pregnant, the managers dismissed her. Ly Sim, together with other workers in her factory, went on strike challenging the dismissal. But the management refused to reinstate Ly Sim and dismissed the other workers who were on strike. Ly Sim was forced to leave the factory in late 2012.
Lack of Reasonable Accommodation of the Needs of Pregnant Workers
The pressure to meet targets and work overtime without taking breaks has a particularly strong impact on pregnant workers and workers who are sick. Unable to withstand the pressure and working conditions, pregnant workers often resigned in the third trimester of their pregnancy.
Pregnant workers have the right to reasonable accommodation, that is, workplace modifications that allow them to perform their jobs without loss of pay, such as light duty and more frequent bathroom breaks.
In December 2013, Preap Vanna, a worker who was five-months pregnant told Human Rights Watch how her supervisor scolded and labeled her unproductive because she took restroom breaks that were seen as “excessive.” She said:
I am able to produce only four or five lots [one lot is a dozen] a day and I go to the toilet often—sometimes three or four times a day [i.e. during eight hours]. The managers call me to the office and shout at me: “If you are pregnant and you are not able to work you should quit.” They call me almost every day. Even today they called me.
Chan Sopheap described how she quit working in a factory when she was eight-months pregnant and rejoined in November 2013 after childbirth, foregoing her maternity pay. She said,
My health was really bad and I couldn’t sit for long hours. And I couldn’t ask for breaks or ask to leave early without doing overtime work. I was scared. I had seen other workers being screamed at and their contracts were not renewed. It happened to two people I know—they were in the sewing division but in different groups.
One worker described how “[s]ome pregnant women’s bodies become so weak from the OT that they have to go to the factory clinic and take a break.” She saw how the managers blamed these women for not being “good workers.” “If they ask not to do OT the manager will not allow that. They gave notice of two or three days and fired pregnant workers. This happened last year—they fired three pregnant women like this,” she said.
Pregnant workers who experienced morning sickness or other discomfort or who needed regular antenatal checks were especially adversely impacted by factories’ requirements for government hospital certificates for sick leave and deductions from the attendance bonus that are not proportional to the number of doctor-certified sick days workers take off.
Given that the garment industry is a significant and growing employer of reproductive-age women, workplace regulations should accommodate their health needs by encouraging and enforcing good practices. In some cases, workers said their factory unions had negotiated special time off for pregnant workers for health care. For example, in one case pregnant workers could use their annual leave to take off a half-shift every month to visit a doctor without, deductions from their attendance bonus.
As explained above, being an FDC worker and facing the constant fear of non-renewal of one’s contract is itself a barrier to seeking leave. Women we spoke with said they were too scared to ask for any time off. But where they did, their entire attendance bonus was deducted. Lol Sreyneang, a union leader, described how an eight-month pregnant worker had taken two hours off in the morning to see a doctor and lost her entire attendance bonus. Similarly, Lay Thida recollected how a pregnant colleague sitting five desks away from her complained of severe abdominal pain from prolonged sitting. Thida said,
[She] asked for [sick] leave permission and they [supervisors] refused it…This happened at around 2 p.m. She was crying because she was in that much pain. But she continued to work because she was scared they would not renew her contract if she left even after they refused permission.
Nheoum Soya, 33, worked on an FDC in her factory. As a mother of a 10-year-old child with a husband who had a disability, she worked hard to make ends meet, never refusing overtime work. She also described how she never took breaks from work or to drink water even during her pregnancy. “I would go to the toilet only if I felt like I was bursting,” she said, to make sure that she did not do anything that jeopardized her job.
Eventually when her contract expired, the administrative staff at the factory told her they were not renewing it. Distraught that she had lost her job, she attempted an abortion at home, which was unsuccessful and she had to be taken to hospital to terminate the pregnancy. Workers in the factory went on a strike and negotiated that she be taken back. The factory took her back in December 2012.
Ku Kam Rein, 32, sells fruit in front of a factory. She used to work in the factory but she quit when she was about five-months pregnant in October 2013. She said,
I used to be exhausted but we just had to work very hard. I couldn’t go for any health checks. I didn’t have any time to go. We had targets to meet. And I was too scared to ask for permission. I asked the group leader and he asked another leader—and that leader refused. They told me I couldn’t go because I hadn’t completed the quota.
Women face a number of barriers to claiming their maternity leave and pay entitlements. These include factories’ use of FDCs and firing visibly pregnant women to avoid giving eligible workers maternity pay, orchestrating a few days’ gap between contract renewals, and casual hiring practices that prevent workers from accumulating the one year’s uninterrupted service that makes them eligible for maternity pay. Additionally whether or not a worker demanded maternity pay depended on her awareness of legal entitlements.
Clampdown on Independent Unions
Independent factory unions often play a critical role in Labor Law enforcement. They can negotiate on behalf of workers and sign collective bargaining agreements with factory management. Some factory managers in Cambodia have used multiple strategies to thwart unionizing or diminish the effectiveness of independent unions. The Cambodian government has also created obstacles to union formation, especially for independent unions.
Cambodia’s Constitution guarantees the rights to strike and to non-violent demonstration. The Labor Law guarantees workers the right to form unions of their choice, protects workers against interference from employers—for example, employers cannot offer workers incentives to join or leave unions. The law also has protections against discrimination on the basis of union membership.
Curtailing Union Activity
Misuse of Fixed-Duration Contracts
People who are on FDCs do not want to join the union because we are concerned about our contracts. We have families to support. If the factory knows that we have joined the union then they will not renew the contract.
—Tola Sovann (pseudonym), factory 4, November 2013
The repeated use of fixed-duration contracts (FDCs) and other forms of long-term casual hiring practices within factories are formidable obstacles to unionizing.
Representatives from independent union federations interviewed by Human Rights Watch—including the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), National Independent Federation of Textile Unions in Cambodia (NIFTUC), Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), and Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU)—said that the increased use of FDCs has impeded their ability to organize within factories and meet freely with workers.
Yang Sophorn, president of CATU, described the extent of the problem:
Almost every factory [where we have a union] has problems because a majority of the workers are on FDCs.… They are reluctant to join unions or even meet union activists. Sometimes they are threatened and told their contracts will not be renewed.
Workers from factory 66 said the management used non-renewal of FDCs to thwart their efforts to set up an independent union in the factory:
Whenever someone has tried to form another union, the factory [management] has fired the person and not renewed their contract. Last Saturday one woman from the sewing division was fired. She had just started work. She was very skilled and was actually a trainer. They fired her because she was giving workers [the] CCAWDU number.
Reth Piseth, the union president of factory 2, said that FDC workers were particularly likely to face management harassment when the union was planning collective action. He said, “This usually happens when the union leaders are not in the factory. They [the managers] verbally harass and warn workers that their contracts will not be renewed if they participate in union activities.”
As discussed above, many workers said their factories had started issuing shorter-term FDCs to male workers to discourage them from joining and participating in unions. Tola Sovann, a male worker on a two-month FDC from factory 4, said that a worker from the stock division of his factory was fired for joining the union. He said, “We were told that we cannot join the union—they told me this when I signed the contract.… And [they] also reminded me a few times when the contract was renewed.”
Firing and Other Union-Busting Strategies
Some workers said that factory managers took retributive action against workers who helped form unions and became office-bearers. Officials from CATU, CCAWDU, NIFTUC, and CUMW told Human Rights Watch that in these cases managers identified the workers using information that workers are required to provide during the union registration process.
Workers must notify factory management about an upcoming union election and then provide information about the results, including the names of office-bearers, before applying for a license to the Labor Ministry. Ironically, according to Prakas (ministerial declaration) 305/2001, workers are required to provide the names of union office-bearers to protect them against being unfairly dismissed. Irrespective of whether workers are hired on FDCs or UDCs, the law should protect them against retaliatory dismissal from the date the union registration application is filed to 30 days after the union license is received.
As detailed below, however, we found that once the factory managers were notified, they intimidated or lured workers with bribes or promotions to resign from the union, or fired elected union office-bearers with impunity. Often by the time they filed a union application for registration, the union leaders had been dismissed or otherwise harassed. Legal protection has done little to prevent union-busting in practice. At best workers were able to challenge dismissals and attempt to have workers reinstated by raising collective disputes before the Arbitration Council. In the interim, employers have stalled union formation for months or longer.
Human Rights Watch raised concerns about union-busting in discussions with Ken Loo, the secretary general of GMAC. He dismissed such concerns, calling union organizers “unproductive workers” or saying that “workers who commit an offense call a bunch of friends and form a union,” to seek legal protection. Government officials reacted similarly, saying some workers were coming together to form unions just before their contracts ended to deliberately seek protection using laws and regulations governing unions.
Contrary to GMAC and government claims, Human Rights Watch documented cases that indicate factory efforts to thwart independent federations from unionizing garment workers. The timing of dismissals closely followed the notification procedures. The workers who alleged that they had been summarily dismissed told Human Rights Watch that they had not received prior warnings or complaints about their performance.
In factory 23, two workers on three-month FDCs had completed their probation periods and had received no complaints about their performance. They helped form a union and were elected office-bearers in late 2013. Within days of notifying the factory, Devoum Chivon, the union president-elect was called to meet the owners. They confronted him about the union and asked him why he formed it. In a second meeting, another man was present. Deoum Chivon said,
He introduced himself as an officer from the Ministry of Interior. He asked me how much money I wanted to leave the factory. I didn’t accept the money. The next day, the factory manager called me, the vice president [of the union], and the secretary [of the union] and told us our performance was not good and we were being dismissed. They instructed the security guards not to let us in from the next day.
In a similar case in May 2013, workers notified factory 24 managers that they had elected two union representatives, and the two were soon dismissed. Both workers had been employed in the factory for more than six months and had their FDCs renewed before. Workers said there were no complaints about their performance. But after the factory was notified about them being elected representatives of the union, managers told them they were “unproductive” and dismissed them. With the help of lawyers, the workers were able to file a complaint before the Arbitration Council, write to the brands, and eventually get reinstated.
In factory P, workers formed a union affiliated to CCAWDU and notified factory management in late 2013. Immediately upon notification the management called the elected representatives and presented them with the option of giving up their union positions for promotions and a hike in wages. The secretary resigned from the union, but the president and vice president refused to accept the offer. They were dismissed. CCAWDU supported the two workers in raising a dispute and the Arbitration Council ruled in December 2013 that the union representatives should be reinstated. But as of mid-January 2015, the factory had not complied with the arbitral award.
Soon after workers notified the management of factory 25 about the names of newly elected union leaders, the management allegedly threatened the union president and vice president. After months of work setting up the union, both suddenly quit working in the factory in early 2013. Workers had to organize another round of elections to fill the vacant posts. However, in the meantime the Labor Ministry had instituted a de facto suspension of union registration, as described below.
Efforts to establish an independent union in factory Q have been ongoing for two years. After a second round of union elections was held in early 2013, management called the newly elected leaders for a meeting with representatives of a pro-management union. NIFTUC officials told Human Rights Watch that they learned that the factory management and pro-management union representatives had pressured workers to resign from the new union if they wanted to continue working in the factory.
CUMW helped form a union in Factory D in September 2013. CUMW said that in October 2013, factory managers pressured the union leaders to join another union in the factory that was pro-management. They threatened to physically harm six workers, including office-bearers and other union organizers, who eventually resigned from the factory fearing for their lives.
As discussed above, union federations can approach the Arbitration Council and seek the reinstatement of workers dismissed for forming unions. Between 2011 and 2013, at least 84 cases related to anti-union discrimination were filed with the Arbitration Council. A union’s successful formation can depend on factory compliance with arbitral awards. Based on data collected between August and October 2012, the Worker Rights Consortium found that at least 13 factories had not complied with arbitral awards pertaining to union leaders’ dismissals.
Compliance with an arbitral award can be superficial. In factory 24, at least two workers were dismissed soon after they notified the factory about their election as office-bearers. The Arbitration Council ordered the workers be reinstated. The factory complied with the arbitral award but posted the workers to a different division far away from the rest of the workers, where they could interact freely and were closely watched. One of them said,
Since reinstatement I feel like I have lost all my freedom. I have been assigned to do heavy work. Doing OT is important for us because we earn more money. Only the four of us are not allowed to do OT. All others in my division are given OT. Earlier I was earning about $170 a month. Now I earn at most $130.
Workers recounted other strategies that factory managers used to discourage unionization or participation in independent unions’ activities. For example, two workers from factory 26 reported that managers allowed only workers unaffiliated with independent unions to earn extra money through overtime work. In factory 57, managers allegedly told the group leaders of the sewing divisions that they could not be part of the factory’s union that was affiliated with an independent federation.
The Government’s Role
Government authorities have made it more difficult for workers to freely create and operate independent unions. They have also revived efforts to pass a new law governing trade unions that would severely curb workers’ freedom to form unions and federations.
De Facto Suspension of Union Registration
Following the authorities’ violent suppression of widespread worker protests for higher minimum wages in December 2013 and early January 2014, independent union federations raised concerns about what they characterized as a de facto government suspension of union registration.
Government officials denied any such suspension in their discussions with Human Rights Watch in March and April 2014. One official said: “The ministry has not suspended union registration. We are looking into existing [union registration] procedures and making them better. We are changing Prakas 21.” They said that they were aiming to begin the process of revising Prakas 21 after the Khmer New Year in mid-April. But an official notification with revised procedures had yet to be issued as of January 2015.
Local groups said they were not consulted on the development of a new prakas or change in procedures. During interviews with Human Rights Watch in November and December 2013, and April 2014, independent union federation representatives from CATU, NIFTUC, CCAWDU, and CUMW all said that the Labor Ministry was refusing to accept new registration applications.
For example, officials from CATU had attempted to submit 13 new applications but were turned away. “We were told to wait because they were changing union registration procedures,” a union official told Human Rights Watch. An official from the union federation CCAWDU said that they had at least four applications pending with the ministry since November and December 2013. In April 2014 he said, “I recently went to check on what has happened to the applications and found out that the ministry has not yet started processing [them].” In January 2015, he reported that some of the 2013 registration applications which they had filed before the wage protests in December 2013 were granted in July and August 2014, but later applications were rejected citing inadequate documentation.
Labor Ministry data suggests a reduction in union registrations since December 2013. When Human Rights Watch met with officials from the ministry in March and April 2014, they said between 50 and 60 applications were pending at that time. Union federation officials told us that registration for most independent unions in the garment industry remained effectively stalled as of January 2015, largely due to the certificate requirement described in the subsection below.
Government officials noted that the law says that a union is considered registered within two months if organizers do not hear back from officials. However, union leaders said this notional registration was of little practical use, particularly because in practice, the absence of an official license severely limits the union’s ability to collectively bargain and represent workers in factories.
Burdensome Procedures and Delays
Cambodia’s Labor Ministry has placed unnecessarily burdensome requirements on workers trying to unionize. Among these is the requirement that they obtain a certificate from the Ministry of Justice proving that each union representative has no criminal record. In practice, the Ministry of Justice takes a month or two to issue such certificates.
Independent unions told Human Rights Watch that union representatives awaiting these certificates risk further retaliation from factory management because it extends the waiting period for union registration.
Several representatives of independent union federations said that government authorities repeatedly rejected applications even on minor grounds like spelling mistakes, making union representatives file applications afresh. They alleged these tactics were used in a discriminatory manner, targeting applications filed by independent unions but not those filed by pro-government or pro-management unions. V.S., a representative from an independent union federation told Human Rights Watch:
In practice the government will check each application and tell us if there are any errors.... For example, there will be a spelling mistake in the word “provincial,” and they will return the application. Or we won’t know that they have reclassified a province as a city—and they won’t change it, they will tell us to make the change ourselves and file again. Sometimes they do this repeatedly and we lose three or four months just in this cycle of changing and refiling the application again and again. One independent union has had this happen for eight months.
In response to Human Rights Watch concerns about a lack of transparency in the union registration process, government officials offered a limited solution in the future. They said they would create a website providing more information about registered unions to the public.
Proposed Law Reform
Cambodian authorities are considering adopting a new trade union law first proposed a few years ago. At the time it was introduced, independent unions and labor rights activists expressed concerns about the draft law, formed a Trade Union Support Group, and provided critical feedback. The government shelved the draft. It was suddenly revived following the December 2013 and January 2014 minimum wage protests and crackdown.
In May 2014, the government held a workshop to discuss the draft law with independent trade unions and other experts but many of their recommendations were not accepted in a later draft.
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of an October 2014 draft. The version we saw seeks to limit the freedom to form unions and introduces bureaucratic procedures that, in practice, would interfere with the operational freedom of unions. For example, it introduces a minimum threshold of 20 percent workers to form a factory-level union, 15 unions to form a federation, and 10 federations to form a confederation.
The draft law imposes a minimum union membership fee, which labor rights groups say will be burdensome for poor workers. It also restricts the ability of minority unions to represent workers and gives overarching powers to the Labor Ministry to suspend union registration without any judicial process. This includes for overbroad and vague reasons such as the “union…continues to cooperate or carry out joint activities with any organizations or institutions… considered by the Royal Government of Cambodia to have caused economic sabotage or committed acts damaging to the interests of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
In discussions with Human Rights Watch, government officials raised the multiplicity of unions as a hindrance to industry relations. They also said they wanted to curb what they characterized as “fake unions” formed by workers who anticipated dismissal and sought to take advantage of legal protection through union formation.
While there are legitimate concerns about multiple unions in a factory, the actions by employers and government officials to support “yellow unions” has in part contributed to the need for multiple unions in a factory. Workers, lawyers, independent unions, and labor rights activists raised concerns about pro-management unions that were not representing worker interests.
Many workers told Human Rights Watch that they did not want to be part of the pro-management union established in their factories. For example, a worker from factory 66 said:
We have Chun Mun Thal’s [pro-CPP Cambodian Union Federation] union in our factory. There is no other union. We don’t want to be part of this union but still they [management] cut 1,000 riels from our salary every month as membership fees.
Phy Saron from factory 52 said she was not part of the union because it was set up by the owner:
Before we used to have another union but the factory got rid of the previous union and started this one. They didn’t renew the contracts of the previous union leaders.
Human Rights Watch documented child labor in violation of local and international labor laws in at least 11 factories. Workers, including children, reported working excessively long hours. Some children reported being paid less than minimum wage. For child workers, factory work came at the expense of their education.
Under Cambodian labor law, garment factories can employ children aged 15 and above. However, all children below age 18 should only be engaged in light work and are prohibited from working for more than 8 hours a day. They should be given at least 13 consecutive hours off between shifts. Children are banned from night work. Factories are required to keep a register of all children employed in the factory with their ages and proof of age.
Human Rights Watch spoke with four children who stated that they began working in garment factories that supply to international brands before turning 15, three of whom said they had started working at age 14 and another at age 12.
Poverty and lack of access to secondary education, combined with idle vacation time, were key reasons why children eventually dropped out of school and took up factory work. Meas Chakrya, a 17-year-old garment worker, said her mother was severely indebted and that she dropped out of school to help support her mother and her four siblings. She said, “There are many children like me in the factory. Some are even younger. I have been working for more than a year. If I were in school I would be in class 9 now. More than 10 children from my class joined the factory first.”
When she quit school, her 15-year-old sister also left school and joined her at the factory.
Huon Ith, 16, explained why she dropped out of school after class 7 and joined a factory: “We didn’t have enough food to eat at home and I couldn’t afford school.” When Houn Ith’s mother was asked what she would do if the factory dismissed all children, she said: “We are poor. If they don’t give us any [monetary] support, I will make her work in a cassava farm.”
Heng Dara, 18, dropped out of grade 8 in 2011 and Song Lim, 17, dropped out of grade 7 in 2012 to work in factory 47, a subcontractor factory. They had initially started working during school vacation to supplement their families’ incomes. When they tried to leave factory 47, the manager refused to part with their birth certificates.
Eventually, Song Lim and Heng Dara left factory 47 and joined factory 48. They earned less than the minimum wage. Their monthly incomes fluctuated between $50 and the statutory minimum wage of $80 at that time. They received a maximum of $100 a month when they did overtime on weekdays. When they had overtime work, they often started work at 7 a.m. and finished at 9:30 p.m., in violation of Labor Law restrictions on children’s working hours.
Another group of six children said they earned the minimum wage only if they met their production quota.
All the children and adult workers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said that children in their factories were made to work alongside adults with equal pressure to meet targets and do work overtime. In at least two factories, workers reported that children did night-work when they had rush orders.
Hiding Child Workers
All workers who reported seeing children in their factories consistently recounted how managers told children to hide or leave the factory on days when “visitors” came. Meas Chakrya, 17, described what happened in her factory in early 2014:
A day before they were about to have visitors in the factory, the factory called a meeting of all the younger children who worked in the factory and told them not to come…And then the Chinese manager asked me my age and when I told him, he told me to go home for that day.
Lun Lea, 15, had been working for a year. She described to Human Rights Watch how her factory managers made her conceal herself when there were visitors:
They told me to hide under the table and had put a pile of clothes on us. I sat there for so long. We were giggling with the pile of clothes on us. We were also scared that we would be fired. So we tried to keep very quiet when the visitors were there.
Addressing Child Labor
Labor activists and union leaders told Human Rights Watch that dealing with the issue of child labor was one of the most complex problems they grappled with. Children from poor families came to garment factories to supplement family incomes. In some cases the families themselves pleaded to allow children to work citing poverty. The challenge associated with reporting child labor was when it resulted in dismissal and the child sought work in another factory or sector instead of meaningful remediation.
Cambodian Labor Ministry officials said they have begun to take the issue of child labor seriously. Following the launch of BFC’s Transparency Database in March 2014, a team of officials conducted monitoring visits in six factories and imposed financial penalties on factories.
Independent union federation officials and union leaders said that imposing the financial burden entirely on factories could result in factories escaping their liability by mass dismissals of children from factories rather than remediation. Such dismissal they worried would just increase the risks for vulnerable children from poor communities.
In December 2014, GMAC signed an agreement with ILO-BFC to address child labor. According to this agreement, workers under age 15 will be given access to suitable vocational training institutes and paid the equivalent of their average monthly factory pay until they reach age 15. GMAC has undertaken to ensure financial support for age confirmation and remediation costs from its member factories.
Sexual Harassment at the Workplace
Workers, independent union representatives, and labor rights activists said that sexual harassment in garment factories was common. A 2012 ILO report on Cambodian garment factories found that one in five women workers surveyed reported that sexual harassment led to a threatening work environment.
The forms of sexual harassment that women recounted to Human Rights Watch include sexual comments and advances, inappropriate touching, pinching, and bodily contact. Female workers complained about both managers and male co-workers.
The Labor Law forbids sexual harassment. Cambodia does not have a law that elaborates rules against sexual harassment at the workplace more broadly, outlines complaints procedures, or promotes safe working environments.
One common complaint from workers at some factories was that their managers used sexually charged words such as “prostitute” and “slut” to demean them at the workplace, especially when they were perceived as “slow.” Workers who complained about this were visibly unhappy and said they found this treatment humiliating and unacceptable. However, they felt powerless and unable to report such behavior.
Reflecting on her experience of working for six years in factory 53, Pung Mom said:
The managers say things with sexual connotations—“I want to kiss you. I want to sleep with you for just one night.” Sometimes even male workers at our level speak to us like this. They will touch our hair, hands, or other parts of our body. If we say anything they will laugh and say “Oh, we just touched you a little bit—why do you mind?” I have seen this happen many times with other workers. I walk around since I am the head of the division so get to see a lot of things that go on.
An oft-repeated complaint from workers against male co-workers was that they addressed women as “oun sam lanh” (which literally means “love” but is used in conversation as “darling” or “honey”) and whistled or winked at them. One worker said,
It’s terrible. Women don’t really like it. We are never seen as equals. They target young and pretty girls. It’s just seen as normal. We can’t even keep track of the number of times they whistle or wink at us.
BFC offers training programs for workers on specific issues, including gender awareness, as part of its Training and Advisory Services. However, these programs are voluntary. The government has not introduced any mechanism, such as training or mandatory complaint procedures, to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in garment factories. Sum Chinda said she had worked in 8 garment factories over 12 years and she had not received any training related to prevention or response to sexual harassment at the workplace.
Women union leaders and labor rights activists emphasized the importance of increased women’s participation in union leadership to help workers to deal more effectively with gender-based concerns, including sexual harassment. They felt that having more women in the unions at all levels—factory, federation, and confederation—would mainstream concerns like sexual harassment at the workplace. According to a 2012 ILO report, nearly 75 percent of workers who participated in a survey reported that their factories had male union leaders.
Workers said they had no access to independent complaint mechanisms in factories where they could safely complain and seek redress for workplace sexual harassment. While a detailed analysis of the internal regulations of factories is beyond the scope of this report, one expert who studied the government’s model factory internal regulations and other factories’ internal regulations said that they do not mention sexual harassment or create any prevention and complaints mechanisms.
In a widely publicized 2012 case, women workers whose manager sexually harassed them went on strike to seek redress, and their union, CUMW, wrote to international brands demanding to have the manager removed. There was no clear process to deal with the complaint and the union negotiations with the factory’s lawyers did not yield any results. The 2012 ILO report found that there were no clear processes to deal with complaints of sexual harassment.
In the few instances where workers said they considered complaining, they did not know how to file a complaint and seek redress, or feared retaliation. The fear was two-fold—that if they complained against a manager, they would lose their job or it would be more difficult to seek permission to refuse overtime or sick leave. Alternatively, if they complained against co-workers like mechanics, then these male workers would retaliate by tampering with the worker’s machine, or not repairing the machine on time.
Keu Sophorn worked in factory 18, which supplies to international brands. She said:
There is one male worker who harasses me a lot. Each day it’s something different. One day he says “Oh your breasts look larger than usual today.” On another day, he says, “You look beautiful in this dress—you should wear this more often so I can watch you.” There are others who purposely brush past us or pinch our buttocks while walking. Sometimes I feel like complaining. I don’t like it at all. But who do I complain to?
Another worker described how the mechanic in her factory harassed her:
The mechanic comes to look at my machine. The guy just stands there, he’s standing over me and I’m sitting and he’s staring into my blouse to look at my cleavage and says something. I don’t like it. But if I complain against him then he won’t repair my machine. I need to work and earn money.