KANDAL PROVINCE, Cambodia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Lon Vanna has been working around the clock for months but no longer sews clothes – she keeps the machines in the abandoned garment factory in Cambodia where she once worked.

Vanna believes the sewing machines are her only hope to save her home and land, which she pledged for a loan to feed herself and her sick parents after the factory was closed by the pandemic again coronavirus in March.

“These machines are my money; they are my life, ”Vanna said, pledging to keep them hostage until she received about $ 2,000 in wages and bonuses owed since the bosses closed the factory some 50 km away. south of the capital, Phnom Penh, without notice.

“We only know how to sew clothes,” she said, seated among half a dozen former workers who guard the factory around the clock, and in August chased the men sent by the owners of the factory away. factory to recover the machines.

“But we don’t see any hope in the industry, only closures and layoffs, so we can’t give up.”

Cambodia’s $ 7 billion clothing sector – the country’s largest employer with 800,000 workers, mostly women – has suffered a double blow this year from the coronavirus pandemic and from Union tariffs European Union (EU) imposed for human rights violations.

Some Cambodian exports lost duty-free access to the EU in August as the bloc signaled its discontent with the Southeast Asian country’s crackdown on opposition, civil society and the media .

Hard-won labor rights have also been overturned this year in the garment industry, worker advocates say, as the virus has fueled ‘anti-union’ in factories and poorer wages and working conditions for those who do. still have a job.

Cambodia has put in place assistance for laid-off garment workers, but workers and advocates say it has been insufficient and difficult to access.

Labor Ministry spokesman Heng Suor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the process for applying for financial support was “not difficult at all (…) as long as the factory properly files an application for financial support. suspension”.


Across the developing world, millions of workers in clothing supply chains were laid off and left without pay in 2020 as the pandemic hit the international fashion industry.

Cambodian workers owe more than $ 120 million in unpaid wages for the first three months of the pandemic, according to advocacy group Labor Behind the Label, describing it as a “growing humanitarian crisis.”

Exports to the EU – typically worth around $ 5.5 billion a year – have fallen by almost $ 1 billion in the first nine months of 2020.

Global brands, including Adidas and Levi Strauss, had urged Cambodia to reform and drop criminal charges against union leaders, but Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power for 35 years, said the country would “not comply. “not to foreign requests.

Bent Gehrt, Southeast Asia field director of the US-based Worker Rights Consortium watch group, described 2020 as a “year of horror for garment workers.”

“The country’s labor rights performance has deteriorated so badly that it has become a marketing handicap for the country as a producer and has increased the risk to brand reputation,” he said.

Able to bounce back

Opinions are divided on the future of the industry.

At least 110 factories have closed permanently due to lost orders and the fate of the scores remains unknown, said Ken Loo, a representative for factory owners, adding that the situation would become clearer when 2021 dues are due.

Loo said Cambodia’s garment industry is well positioned to rebound as exports to the United States increased in 2020, more than 60 new factories have registered, and Cambodia has far fewer cases of the coronavirus than others. Asian production centers.

While India has recorded nearly 10 million infections, the second highest in the world after the United States, and Myanmar more than 100,000 cases, Cambodia has recorded fewer than 400 cases and no deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University count.

“Look at the alternatives – Myanmar, for example, where COVID is out of control,” said Le Loo, general secretary of the Cambodia Garment Manufacturers Association.

“It will be a factor for investors in the future.”

Loo said he was also optimistic about trade with Britain following the completion of his transition out of the EU on December 31, which will end EU tariffs and allow Cambodia to export. to Great Britain duty free.

“I’m not saying it will make all the difference … but I don’t think we’re in a worse position,” he said.


But fashion giant H&M, which owns around 50 factories in Cambodia, said sourcing in Cambodia had become “problematic” due to rising tariffs, labor rights and environmental concerns, especially its recent heavy investments in coal.

“Producing countries that continue to view coal as a viable energy source for the future could potentially lose future investments,” said Christer Horn Af Aminne, country director of H&M in Cambodia.

Meanwhile, for Cambodians who have jobs, competition has lowered conditions and trade unionists continue to be targeted, said Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions.

“Just last month, we organized two new local unions in factories and our leaders in both cases have already faced threats or actual dismissals,” she said.

Cambodian textile workers are set to receive a $ 2 increase from the minimum wage to $ 192 per month in January – still below the minimum living wage of $ 588 calculated by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a chain lobby group. ‘supply.

The women who kept the sewing machines at the old Vanna factory, each owing a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, said they had little else to do and would not leave .

“I have sold my motorbike now so I can’t go anywhere,” said Hoeun Toeuth, 38, behind a face mask.

“But we still have rice, and we will fight to the end – that’s the life of the worker.”

Reporting by Matt Blomberg and Mech Dara, editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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