Cambodia: Workers Rights versus Workers Benefits

A recent report issued jointly by the  Worker Rights Consortium and Stanford Law School claims that serious deficiencies exist in the ILO’s Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) program.  This news is no news at all.  In fact it is surprising only that it has taken so long for people to recognize that BFC is a total failure.

I would go further and suggest that the only change brought by BFC was to increase the amount of corruption in an already totally corrupt country.

The problem is not poor implementation or insufficient monitoring but rather that the entire program was and still is flawed.

Providing workers the right to organize was an important and successful first step, but is totally useless in itself.  The good news is that today Cambodia has a flourishing union movement where every Cambodian garment factory has at least one union.  The bad news is that most have four or five unions, each of which spend most of their time squabbling

  1. Unions must be transparent, providing audited statements of income an expenditures.  For example, while it is only reasonable that union leaders attend conferences and courses of study,  traveling to Paris for 6 months at union expense is too much of a good thing.
  2. Unions and management must have collective bargaining.  Someone must be empowered to negotiate for each side.  Worker-management discussions must not become multi-partite negotiations where management is forced to negotiate with organized labor while simultaneously disorganized labor negotiates with itself.  This is the current situation. We have seen that when agreement becomes impossible the true negotiations will no longer occur at the table but rather under the table.
  3. Compulsory arbitration must be an agree alternative when management and their union are unable to agree.  Ours is a seasonal business, where in peak periods management must accede to any demands.  However, these short-term gains serve to undermine all future negotiations.
  4. Union leaders must be professional.  Workers are by nature short sighted.  Unions must look to the longer term able to negotiate multiyear contracts that provide annual increases in wage and benefits.

Everyone agrees that to succeed the system is open and honest.

It is easy to condemn failure.  It is more difficult to accept failure and recognize the need for change.

Regrettably as the recent report shows creating an open and honest system is beyond the scope of the ILO.

We must now go on to recognize that we need change. To create a viable labor union movement, we must bring in outside professional assistance.

I suggest that the best organization to create a viable organized labor movement is organized labor.  UNITE-HERE is the AFL-CIO garment workers union. It knows the industry.  It has been involved in the Asian industry for many years.  It is non-political.  It has knowledgeable professionals quite capable of assisting national union movements to represent garment industry.

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