On July 28, the Washington Fair Trade Coalition held a press conference to close the loop on the global apparel supply chain. Phouk Hoeung, project coordinator of the Cambodia Women’s Movement Organization (CWMO), described the low wages, forced overtime and lack of health coverage for garment workers — 90 percent of whom are female. They are paid $61 per month, far below the $93 minimum monthly wage. As a result, many workers are malnourished and fearful of speaking out due to firings, retaliation, and sexual or verbal abuse.
Morm Nhim, a former garment worker and current president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC) explained that the Kingdom of Cambodia has proposed legislation called the Draft Law on Unions, Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, which would limit workers’ rights and make it harder to organize. She received death threats for protesting work conditions. The Cambodian government opposes the unification of union federations and tries to divide workers against each other.
Hoeung and Nhim are part of the Cambodian labor delegation sponsored by the Solidarity Center, AFL-CIO, that joined 700 other unionists, youth and community activists at the 11th biennial national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Oakland, Calif., from July 21-24. APALA delegates passed a resolution to oppose this Cambodian government proposed Draft Law.
In 2010, Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata led the passage of a SweatFree Purchasing Policy. At the press conference, Licata reaffirmed that the City of Seattle supports good local jobs and businesses that protect workers’ rights. This model is one step towards a statewide policy that rejects apparel manufacturing that exploits cheap labor and allows poor working conditions.
Washington State Senator Steve Conway fully supports a SweatFree policy and called for sending a letter to President Barack Obama to pressure the Cambodian government to support unions. Conway plans to circulate a letter of support among his fellow state legislators. He hopes to see Washington state join California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont in leading the nation in fully endorsing and implementing a SweatFree policy. (For more information, see the website of SweatFree Communities at www.sweatfree.org.)
Senator Conway went to Cambodia in 2005 as a member of the US Cambodia
Solidarity Center AFL-CIO delegation. They met with workers from textile factories, construction and hotel/tourism. He noted that their discussion with the US ambassador to Cambodia affirmed that a SweatFree purchasing policy in the US would support union development and greater democracy in Cambodia.
The effectiveness of international pressure on companies is demonstrated by the recent victory for 4,000 garment workers who will be reimbursed wages by companies such as GAP, H&M and Russell. The proposed Washington State SweatFree Purchasing policy includes a sweatfree manufacturing code that observes local laws and International Labor Organization standards; public disclosure and transparency; independent accountability that can enforce policies, monitor and investigate labor violations, as well as setting up a Sweatfree Procurement Advisory Committee.
Non-poverty wages for garment workers has little effect on higher prices for consumers. Washington Fair Trade Coalition notes that local economies thrive when there are incentives for fair business practices. Fair business practices promote global economic security and political stability.
Seattle co-hosts of the Cambodian labor delegation included Lily Wilson-Codega from Teamsters 117, Kristen Beifus, executive director of Washington Fair Trade Coalition and Tracy Lai, president of the Seattle chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. Wilson-Codega and Lai were labor delegates on the 2010 US Cambodia Solidarity Center AFL-CIO delegation and proposed the 2011 exchange.
The 2011 Cambodian labor delegation spoke to many audiences in San Francisco/Oakland and Seattle. They attended a women’s leadership summit, as well as an organizing workshop. Field trips included a ferryboat ride and tour with the Inland Boatmen’s Union and a visit to Persephone Farm, the oldest Community Supported Agriculture farm in Washington State. Bob Santos led a historical walking tour of the International District, and Mell Sameth organized a tour of White Center with a memorable visit to the South Park Khmer Temple and lunch at the Khmer Donut Shop. The delegates plan to continue regular updates with their new allies in Washington State.