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Cambodian tribunal examines low wages, mass faintings

April 18, 2012

Above: Heath Kimhuor testifies at the tribunal

Heath Kimhuor is having trouble making ends meet. Her base salary of US$66 a month at the Grand Twins garment factory in Cambodia is nowhere near enough to support herself and her family. To raise her income to the survival level Heath works two hours overtime every day and on holidays. Even with the extra overtime pay, she sometimes has to borrow money from her landlord at 20% interest per month.

"If I get sick, I don't have any money for treatment," she says. "I also worry that I don't have money to cover the costs for my son to go to school because I have not saved much, but ... at my income, I cannot cover my daily expenses."

Heath was testifying at the Peoples Tribunal on a Living Wage, which was held in Phnom Penh on February 5 and 6 and organized by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. The Tribunal exposed the poverty wages paid to Cambodian apparel workers, as well as the working conditions in the country's apparel industry. Not surprisingly, Heath's story is not uncommon.

The Tribunal found that the combination of inadequate nutrition, excessive working hours, and exposure to hot, dusty working environments and harmful chemicals amounts to "a systematic violation of [workers'] fundamental right to a decent human life."

Mass faintings

Workers testifying at the Tribunal also spoke about the disturbing rise of "mass faintings" of workers at a number of garment factories in the country. A year ago, more than 200 workers fainted in two mass incidents at the Huey Chuen garment factory. Similar mass faintings have happened at a number of other factories.

Suon Sokhunthea, Vice President of the National Independent Federation of Textile Unions of Cambodia (NIFTUC) blames working conditions and poverty wages for the faintings. She testified that workers at the Huey Chuen factory "work for 12-14 hours a day, some using strong glues and chemicals, in hot and poorly ventilated environments.

"They also don't eat nutritious food as they can't afford it, and many have to make long journeys in the back of trucks in order to get to and from work," she added. Huey Chuen workers travel up to an additional hour and a half each way to and from work.

Paying a living wage

The Tribunal concluded with a call for a living wage for Cambodian garment workers of at least US$185-200/month - enough to feed a family and provide for their children's basic health and educational needs.

It's a small amount when compared to the profits made from their work. In 2011, Puma, which sources apparel from the Huey Chuen factory, reported US$304.3 million in net profits. Puma alone could have paid Huey Chuen's 3,400 workers an additional US$100 a month last year and still made US$300 million in profits.

More faintings

Just after the Tribunal concluded, another mass fainting incident occurred at the Nanguo Garment factory after workers were forced to work overtime in excess of legal limits. The factory produces branded garments for the National Football League, National Hockey League, and JC Penney.

Cambodia has been the site of numerous corporate social responsibility programs over the last dozen years. That workers are still being paid so little that they can't afford to eat properly represents a serious failure for these programs and a challenge that must be met head on. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance is pressuring companies to meet that challenge.


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