San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 2002
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,
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
“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
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
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
“Until Gap workers are given a decent wage,” he said, “they will continue