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2002


GARMENT WORKERS SAY GAP AIDED IN CAMBODIAN STRIFE
S.F. firm still faces criticism over sweatshops

San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2002

 By Richard Sine, Chronicle Foreign Service

At a time when Gap Inc. is under fire for using overseas sweatshops, Cambodian union leaders are crediting the San Francisco firm with solving a messy labor problem last month at this nation’s largest garment factory.

Nothing was done until “we complained to Gap (corporate headquarters in San Francisco),” said Chhorn Sokha, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers, an independent federation with members from 25 factories.

Chhorn said a Gap official from the Philippines helped forge an agreement to end months of harassment of union leaders at the South Korean-owned Sam Han Cambodian Fabrics factory, an independent contractor that employs 9,000 people and produces nearly 500,000 cotton, wool and cashmere sweaters a month for Gap.

Chhorn said workers had been beaten by hired thugs, offered bribes by management to stop their union organizing and even shot at.

In September, Sam Han union president Soum Tola was beaten by four men, and union leader Chhun Sophea, who works for another plant owned by Sam Han, was struck with an iron bar, Chhorn said.

Also, Sam Han supervisor Noun Bun Nem spent a month in jail for shooting at a worker after trading insults, according to Lay Sivutha, a police official. Noun missed the worker but wounded two others and was forced to pay them $1, 500 in compensation.

The Gap’s intervention helped convince Sam Han to rehire and compensate Soum, improve grievance procedures and meet regularly with union members to iron out differences.

Steven Weingarten, industrial director for the New York-based Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), says such kinds of labor problems are “business as usual when a multinational corporation goes to places where people live in poverty and under political repression, and take advantage of that to make more money.”

Just last month, UNITE accused Gap—one of the nation’s largest clothing retailers, with annual sales of close to $14 billion and some 4,000 stores that sell its Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic products—of encouraging the exploitation of workers in six countries, including Cambodia, Lesotho, Indonesia, Bangladesh, El Salvador and Mexico.

In a 24-page report, UNITE described appallingly low wages, long hours, health hazards and union busting at 43 factories manufacturing Gap products. UNITE urged holiday shoppers to avoid Gap clothes and has given protesters buttons that say “Stop Gap sweatshops.”

Gap spokesman Alan Marks says his company has a code of conduct that its overseas contractors are expected to follow and “when there are egregious abuses, we terminate business.”

As an example, he said Gap canceled a contract with a Cambodian factory called June Textiles in 1999 after a BBC investigation reported that the plant had used child labor.

Marks also said Gap has 90 full-time employees who monitor working conditions at factories that produce their clothes in more than 50 countries. He said Cambodian monitors have made 45 visits to Sam Han since mid-1999 to address workers’ complaints.

“We have never said that garment factories are perfect,” he said, “but we have been aggressively monitoring the situation in Cambodia.”

Nevertheless, some labor observers sharply criticize Gap’s monitoring process.

“Unless workers are organized to fight for their own labor standards,” said Katie Quan, director of the John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations at UC Berkeley, “there is little guarantee that (monitors) can be thorough and effective.”

Laura Rubbo, senior manager for business and human rights of the San Francisco chapter of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), says large brands like Gap are easy targets for anti-sweatshop campaigns, even though they are making efforts to address labor abuses.

Business for Social Responsibility is a nonprofit that helps firms design and implement codes of ethical conduct and is funded by grants and donations from corporations—including Gap.

“The Gap is truly committed to their code of conduct and are one of the better retailers when it comes to social compliance,” said Rubbo. “The Gap’s strategy is not to yank business out of a factory when there is a problem but resolve the issue over time. Seldom are these issues resolved overnight.”

Cambodia has seen an explosive growth of apparel exports since the mid- 1990s, and apparel is now the nation’s largest industry.

The nation’s 190 garment factories—up from just seven in 1994—employ some 175,000 employees and generate $1 billion in annual exports, nearly 80 percent of which goes to the United States, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia.

Almost all the apparel factories are operated by Asian firms from Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, China and Singapore, producing clothing for familiar brand and retailer names such as the Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, Ann Taylor, Levi Strauss, Sears and Abercrombie and Fitch.

But along with rapid growth came chronic labor problems such as forced overtime without pay, long hours and salaries that are lower than the $45 a month minimum wage. A September report by the International Labor Organization found that more than 80 percent of surveyed factories underpaid their employees.

In an effort to stop the abuses, the Clinton administration and the Cambodian government agreed to a landmark agreement in 1999 that links increased trade to improved labor conditions. If conditions improve, the yearly export quota can rise.

On Dec. 3, the United States did just that by raising the quota by 12 percent. A U.S. diplomat in Phnom Penh attributed the move to Cambodia’s increasing tolerance of union organizing and collective bargaining.

Sok Siphana, Cambodia’s secretary of state for commerce, said the U.S. decision proves that working conditions have improved.

“Overall we did a good job in terms of (International Labor Organization) labor standards,” he told reporters. “To focus on a few incidents here and there is looking for the sensational and not a fair representation of the industry.”

But union leaders say Cambodian labor officials often overlook abusive conditions in return for payoffs from factory owners who complain that stringent labor standards will prompt them to move to China and Vietnam, communist states where genuine unions are tolerated even less than in Cambodia.

At Sam Han, union leaders say there have been some visible improvements since the pact brokered by Gap. Kao Poeun, a union adviser, says intimidation with guns has ended.

But salary issues are still a problem, many workers say.

Several full-time employees told a reporter that they are earning as little as $20 in some months—well below the minimum wage. And in a one-day strike on Nov. 26, employees demanded that the factory abide by the law by paying double time on holidays and not forcing workers to put in overtime.

In response, Sam Han manager Park Byoung Gun says the average worker’s wage is $70 a month and attributed past violence against union leaders to personal disputes between workers and supervisors unrelated to labor activities. He also denied that management has ever orchestrated beatings and said supervisors were never allowed to bring guns inside the factory.

But for UNITE’s Weingarten, the situation in Cambodia and other developing nations will remain the same until U.S. retailers like Gap demand that contract factories pay higher salaries.

“Until Gap workers are given a decent wage,” he said, “they will continue to suffer.”


 
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