Eak Yuthea Reak went to Bak Touk High School in Phnom Penh on Friday clutching a small piece of paper inscribed with seven names. He was there to collect the national exam results of a group of friends who couldn’t bear the stress of finding out their scores in person.
Cambodia’s garment industry is experiencing a worrying rise in fire safety violations as factories struggle to cope with a sharp increase in the number of orders they are receiving, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Better Factories Cambodia program (BFC) said in a report on Thursday.
The ILO also said that the industry was giving workers excessive amounts of overtime—defined as more than two hours extra per day—and that there was a lack of improvement to factors that contribute to episodes of mass fainting.
“It is possible that attention to workplace safety and health standards and other legal standards have waned as factories are challenged to fill the increased volume of orders,” the ILO said in its bi-annual synthesis report on labor conditions in Cambodia’s garment sector. “However, recent deadly fires in the garment sector in other Asian countries reminds us that vigilance is required on such measures.”
In the period from May to October 2012, when the ILO monitored 130 factories, it noted an “unprecedented” drop in maintaining exit paths free of obstructions in factories—from 87 percent to 57 percent.
Despite the ILO’s repeated visits to the 130 factories, “improvements are not being made in many areas,” the report continued. For example, ventilation and air circulation in factories had worsened over the period, as had work place cleanliness and functioning toilets.
“Industry growth need not and should not result in increased non-compliance,” the report says, adding that the government, international buyers and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) should use their influence to make factories comply.
Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, said that locked doors and tight hallways are common fire hazards.
“In Cambodian [factories], there are very few exits, most of them are small, and worse is that they are closed and sometimes even locked,” Mr. Thorn said. “Factories say that they are afraid of losing their stuff when workers come in and out but if there is a fire, hundreds of people would die.”
The ILO’s report on Cambodia’s garment sector is the first since a scathing report was released in February by Stanford University in the U.S. that said the ILO program was ineffective. Mr. Thorn said that BFC could be taking a stronger stance due to criticism from the unions and the Stanford researchers, noting that problems in the offending factories are unlikely to be fixed if they are not named in the ILO’s reports.
“The reports are usually not strong and the factories don’t change and that’s because the report does not show the name of the factories,” he said.
With regard to fire safety, Ken Loo, chairman of GMAC, said all members of his association have already informed its members to “take special care” when it comes to fire safety.
“It’s not something that factories would choose to be non-compliant on. I feel like it’s more a question of maybe the day they were visited, or laziness, or oversight,” Mr. Loo said. He added that the ILO omitted details from its report, which led to an inaccurate portrayal of the industry, such as the illegality of the numerous strikes that took place over the six-month period.
“It was stated how many strikes happened, and out of all the strikes that happened, 100 percent did not follow the legal procedures,” Mr. Loo said.
Maeve Galvin, a consultant with the BFC program, said the recent critical report from Stanford researchers had no bearings on the ILO’s findings.
She also said the ILO has delivered information about factories that are “chronically non-compliant” to the government for action.
“Greater transparency could play a role in addressing persistently non-compliant factories, and BFC is working towards this,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Kaing Menghun)
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