A female garment worker in a factory in Phnom Penh. Photo: Oxfam

CAMBODIA’S WOMEN GARMENT WORKERS HAVE BEEN PROMISED A DECENT LIFE: NOW WE MUST SUPPORT THEM TO CLAIM THEIR RIGHTS

The government is now offering maternity leave, a pension fund and other social benefits that could give women stability and security. Sopharith Sin and Roland Chauville explain how a new project will support them to get a better deal.

Across the globe, women in the garment industry are too often deprived of basic labour rights, with millions in informal work and pushed into poverty with low pay, long hours, no sick or maternity pay and unsafe workplaces.

But in Cambodia at least, that is changing. Here, in the garment industry – historically a sector where Cambodian women have been particularly vulnerable – the government has launched several social protection schemes. The National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in particular, has reported that in 2020 alone, it paid a total of 80,000 female garment workers maternity allowances from the government totalling US$7.9 million. This month, the government also launched a new pension fund for private-sector workers.

Yet, even with such protection now available, big challenges remain: how do we ensure women workers know they are entitled to social protection? What about unethical employers who don’t comply and fail to offer these life-changing benefits to workers? What about the quality of services for apparel industry workers such as healthcare and responses to complaints?

TACKING THE BARRIERS TO SOCIAL PROTECTION

Addressing such challenges will be the focus of a new Oxfam in Cambodia and Laudes Foundation project: “Inclusive National Social Protection Initiatives that Respond to the Needs of Apparel Industry Employees”, or INSPIRE, to support the government to improve the lives of apparel industry workers. The overarching goal is to reduce vulnerability by supporting workers to get better access to social protection.

Our project will address the remaining barriers to social protection such as lack of access to information; non- compliance by employers; and lack of services for workers. It will focus particularly on workers on short-term contracts, who face some of the biggest barriers to access.

We will do this in four key ways:

Awareness raising campaigns and communication activities;

Strengthening the capacity of trade unions to better represent and negotiate workers’ social protection needs and entitlements;

Supporting unions to influence social protection policy through meaningful participation in multi-stakeholder dialogues and decision making at regional and national level, including the Social Protection for All (SP4All) platform, an organisation supported by various civil society organisations (CSOs) in Cambodia that seeks to raise public awareness on social protection and campaign for change, as well as share knowledge around social protection;

Evidence-based research and advocacy, policy briefs, and position papers during Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN and for other platforms, such as the Asian People Forum.

Partnership will be at the heart of everything we do and the project will be jointly implemented with four local NGOs and trade unions: the Centre for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, the Cambodia Labour Confederation, the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, and the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.

We will also be working closely with strategic partners, such as the National Social Protection Council (NSPC), National Social Security Fund (NSSF), Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, international brands, employers and other stakeholders to strengthen and safeguard inclusive social protection.

WHO WILL BENEFIT?

This initiative will support workers across 12 provinces and two municipalities. It will also support the Royal Government of Cambodia to integrate gender-sensitive approaches into its social protection policies.

It is expected to benefit a total of 23,000 people directly and 735,000 indirectly. More importantly, it is anticipated that around a million people will benefit from public awareness campaigns, position papers, evidence-based research, and other communication activities.

Sophoan Phean, National Director of Oxfam in Cambodia, believes that “access to social protection is critical for workers and their households, as it helps to sustain their well-being, build resilience, and reduce the risk from global shocks or the pandemic”.

Jill Tucker, Head of Labour Rights Programme at the Laudes Foundation, says: “Contributory social security schemes like the NSSF strengthen the social contract and provide a basis for workers to demand support and protection when they experience illness, workplace injuries or economic shocks. Fulfilling this promise hinges in part on workers’ voices being better represented and reflected in policy discussions. Through collaboration with Oxfam on the INSPIRE initiative, we believe apparel industry workers in Cambodia will be able to access the benefits they are entitled to.”

HOW RESEARCH REVEALED THE NEED FOR THE INSPIRE PROJECT

The need for a project like INSPIRE was revealed in a research study, Social Protection For The Apparel Industry in Cambodia: Gaps and Opportunities, jointly commissioned by Oxfam in Cambodia and the Laudes Foundation. This revealed barriers to women claiming their rights, such as non-compliance by employers, lack of legal enforcement and lack of information for workers, that have become the focus of the project.

The project was then developed through consultation and workshops with partners and industry representatives. We collected inputs from local experts, trying throughout to take an inclusive, participatory approach with local ownership that has given beneficiaries and partners a fair say in how the project will work.

THE BENEFITS ARE THERE – NOW IT’S TIME TO MAKE SURE WOMEN GET THEM

Now we are up and running, the project has a unique opportunity to change women’s lives, presented by the expansion of benefits for Cambodian women workers in recent times.

The NSPC reported that, between January 2018 and March 2022, approximately 300,000 female workers in the formal and informal sector benefited from cash support totalling US$30.1 million. And at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia, workers who were laid-off also received support in the form of cash transfers: a total of at least 560,000 households benefited from this scheme in 2020 alone.

The workshop to launch the project had a great response, with significant media coverage from local and regional media and bloggers such as the Phnom Penh Post, the Khmer Times, JUST STYLE, and Community 99.

Now we need to build on this positive response to support real change in the lives of Cambodia’s women garment workers. For too long, women in Cambodia faced precarity, poor conditions and risked poverty for simply having a child. Now policy changes are at last giving them a chance to live a decent life with more stability and security. We must do everything we can to support them to claim their rights.