There are only few truly independent and democratically organized trade unions in Cambodia. The Cambodian Government is actively blocking their efforts. Solidar Suisse supports strong, independent unions with significant female participation. This is the only way to improve the women‘s position in the garment industry.
The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) is the country‘s largest independent trade union in the clothing industry. With its more than 80’000 members, it has considerable political weight. Solidar Suisse, with support from the Laudes Foundation, started a project in 2018 seeking to improve the working conditions in selected Cambodian garment factories by strengthening the collective bargaining power of local factory unions. The project involves building grassroots capacity to access, analyse and utilize publicly available data, in particular that contained in the Better Factories Cambodia Transparency Database, so that workers may successfully negotiate factory-level CBAs through evidence-based bargaining.
In the course of the first phase of the project, running from April 2018 to August 2020, the workers learned how to access and use the Better Factories Cambodia database, which is part of the ILO/IFC Better Work Programme. During the first project phase four collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) resulting in improved working conditions for more than 12’000 workers were signed. Further key successes included: (i) raising awareness among workers and local trade unions of the existence of publicly available data on the garment industry in Cambodia and accessing this data; (ii) identification of potential topics to be included in CBAs based on this data and forming ideas and arguments to support their negotiations; and (iii) better understanding the steps involved in CBA preparations.
The main recommendations deriving from the first project phase are:
- Better Factories Cambodia (BFC) should revamp the Transparency Portal to make it more accessible and user-friendly for workers. This could include creating a mobile application, or even integration with Facebook as it is the primary browsing, sharing and information platform for most garment workers and many Cambodians in general.
- To improve a wider range of working conditions, rather than merely working to rectify non-compliance on select critical issues, BFC should supplement the published compliance data on the 21 critical issues in the Transparency Database, with that for the remaining 31 low-compliance issues which are not currently available publicly. This would broaden the set of data available to workers for evidence-based bargaining.
- Workers’ unions should ensure that their participation in the BFC Project Advisory Committee and the Trade Union Contact Group becomes more effective.
The Public Report on the detailed findings from phase 1 concludes that there has so far been insufficient involvement of the Cambodian workers’ in the entire process. This raises the question if the Governments supporting BFC (Australia, Netherlands, USA) and the back-donors of the ILO/IFC-Better Work Programme, such as the Swiss Government (and ultimately these countries’ taxpayers), are fully aware of the fact that the main purpose of BFC seems to be the improvement of the reputation of the Cambodian garment sector. It is assumed that increased transparency will drive and promote the addressing of the critical issues in the factories thus improving working conditions. However, this effect will only happen if the data collected and shared through BFC is correct, reflecting the actual situations at the factory level.
In the next phase of the project, Solidar Suisse, with the continued support from Laudes Foundation, aims to take further action to enhance grassroots and federation capacity in accessing and utilizing public data, and to advocate for effective, relevant data which is able to address workers’ needs and build bargaining power. Worker empowerment remains at the heart of our approach, and while there are data quality and capacity gaps to bridge, we believe in the importance of systemic, structural change to transform institutional providers of public data so it can actually be used by workers. It is expected that over the entire 2nd project period from 2020 to 2024 more than 30’000 garment workers (majority women) will experience improved working conditions and better access to social protection and that more workers impacted by COVID-19 receive just compensation and rehabilitation.