Cambodian factory deaths shine spotlight on conditions | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 16.05.2013
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Cambodian factory deaths shine spotlight on conditions

The deaths of at least two Cambodian workers and injuries sustained by 10 colleagues at a shoe factory southwest of Phnom Penh once more shine a light on conditions in the global garment manufacturing industry.

Thursday's accident at the Wing Star Shoe factory in the Cambodian capital took place when a section of ceiling collapsed onto a group of several dozen workers. The factory, which has 7,000 staff, is contracted to manufacture shoes for Japanese athletics brand ASICS.

On Thursday, the Kobe-based company told DW that it was still assessing what had happened and would issue a statement in due course.

Dave Welsh, the country director at the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, a labour group, visited Wing Star on Thursday and said it looked as though the ceiling at the Taiwanese-owned factory had been “badly overloaded” with materials.

Two garment workers protesting in Phnom Penh

Garment workers protested on May 1 in Phnom Penh

He said the casualties could have been far higher: "This is huge factory by Cambodian standards with 7,000 workers, but the collapse happened in a corner section."

The incident follows last month's disaster in Bangladesh when more than 1,100 workers died after a building housing several garment factories collapsed. The building's owner had reportedly added two illegal floors and placed generators above that, overloading the structure.

Welsh said the deaths and injuries at Wing Star were symptomatic of wider problems.

"This is an entirely international supply chain, and ASICS is a big Japanese company," he said. "That this happened at all is inexcusable - it highlights how bad conditions are for workers, and that this is not isolated to Bangladesh but is a regional and a global problem."

Greater awareness

Cambodia's garment manufacturing sector has boomed in the past decade, in part benefiting from rising wages in China that have driven companies to move to lower-cost nations such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Garment and shoe manufacturing is now a pillar of Cambodia's economy: Exports last year, most of which went to the European Union and the United States, brought in 4.6 billion US dollars.

Factory in Dhaka after fire (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

Over a thousand people died in a factory fire in Dhaka in early May

The industry is also the largest formal employer with more than 350,000 workers. In March the government ordered the minimum wage increased from 61 US dollars a month to 75 dollars effective from May 1.

The industry has brought much-needed jobs and foreign exchange to the impoverished nation. Yet with expanding trade has come greater scrutiny. Conditions in the global garment and shoe manufacturing industry have garnered increasing media coverage in recent years, and Cambodia has had its share of issues over the past year with strikes, mass faintings and a triple shooting.

Ken Loo, the secretary-general of Garment Manufacturers' Association in Cambodia, a trade body, said Thursday's incident was “of great concern”.

"Not because of the scope of the incident but because of the ripples that will come of this - the assumed bad publicity and the assumed linkage with Bangladesh," he said.

Loo was quick to separate what happened in Cambodia with the disaster in Bangladesh, and said the ceiling collapse was not indicative of a systemic problem: instead the deaths and injuries at Wing Star, which is a GMAC member, looked more like the consequence of shoddy construction.

Loo, who visited the Wing Star factory on Thursday, said that the rebar - the steel rods used to provide support inside the concrete ceiling - looked to his layman's eyes to be "very, very thin."

Trade unionists and monks protest in Phnom Pehn on May 1 2013

Trade unionists and monks took part in the Labor Day protests

He predicted that Thursday's incident would not affect brands in the way that Bangladesh's has done, because "it's a different situation we have here - it's not a sector-wide problem." But he said GMAC, which has 405 garment factories as members and 42 shoe factories, would work with stakeholders to find solutions. One of those would require the government's building inspectors to enforce building codes.

Better factories

The most effective set of eyes on Cambodia's garment exporters belongs to the International Labor Organization's Better Factories Cambodia program. BFC inspectors monitor factories such as Wing Star to ensure that they pay wages promptly and accurately, that they do not employ underage workers and that they have fire safety codes.

Jill Tucker, the BFC's chief technical adviser, said although Thursday's accident was uncommon it had highlighted the need for factories to adhere to building standards too.

"So now we have to add this to our toolbox," she said. "We will have to consider new requirements - clearly this is something that's got to change."

Tucker said the BFC program enjoys good relationships with 40 brands, all of which are American, European or Canadian. Thursday's accident, she said, showed it was time that the hundreds of buyers from other countries - including Japan - that have in the past shown little regard for labor issues finally stepped up to the plate.

"We need all of those buyers who are under the radar to have the spotlight shone on them so they will take action," she said, adding that buyers would need not only to pressure factories to make changes, but must also pay a fair price to ensure that they could afford them.

And although Cambodia's garment industry was typically the centre of attention, Tucker said more scrutiny was needed on the country's footwear sector. Thursday's accident at Wing Star, she concluded, ought to increase that focus because to date "there hasn't been that much."

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