Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cambodia Garment Factory Conditions Continue to Worsen

By Kate O'Keeffe 

Anyone hoping to see improvements in the world’s garment factories may need to wait a bit longer, at least in one booming apparel-industry hub: Cambodia.

A United Nations-backed program’s latest assessment of the country’s garment factories found lower compliance levels with key health and safety measures than seven years ago, suggesting efforts to improve the sector there aren’t totally effective.

The half-yearly report from Better Factories Cambodia comes just two months after two factory accidents, including one that left two people dead, highlighted what activists say are continuing poor working conditions despite some improvements more than a decade ago.

The report also follows a far deadlier accident in Bangladesh—the collapse in April of a garment-factory building that killed more than 1,100 people and drew global scrutiny on the industry.

Compliance with some measures of fire safety is “unacceptably low” in Cambodia’s garment and shoe industry, according to the report by Better Factories, an organization that monitors and reports on factories and offers training for factories and workers. Of the 155 factories assessed in the November 2012-April 2013 period, 53% had obstructed access paths, compared with a little more 30% in 2006, and 15% kept emergency exit doors locked during working hours, up from less than 10%.

The report also called attention to a decline in compliance with worker health and safety measures including heat levels in factories and overtime work. In the latest six-month period, only 15% of factories limited overtime to two hours a day, down from nearly 25% in 2006, and 27% maintained acceptable heat levels compared with around 45%.

The Better Factories program said that some of the negative compliance trends may be due to factories’ struggle to keep pace with the industry’s rapid growth, noting that the number of export factories in Cambodia rose 8% to 412 during the most recent six-month period.

But it said that the factories still need to do better, pointing out that 51% of the ones reviewed in its most recent report have already received five or more assessments, giving them plenty of opportunities to correct problems.

The Better Factories program, which some have criticized recently for not promoting reform aggressively enough, said that it should do more as well. The program said it would keep sharing its data on “chronically noncompliant” factories with the government and try to engage more international buyers as well. Better Factories said it has relationships with nearly 40 buyers who source from Cambodia.

“Still, the majority of buyers purchasing garments and footwear made in Cambodia are not engaged with BFC and may not be exerting leverage to improve working conditions,” the report said.

Japan’s Asics Corp. said this month it would overhaul its oversight of suppliers in Cambodia following the deaths of two workers at one of its nine supplier factories there. The company has instructed all nine to join Better Factories. Before the accident, only three of Asics’s factory partners participated.

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