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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cambodia Respects Labor Rights and Reaps Rewards

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- At the close of a long, hot day of sewing men's shirts, hundreds of young Cambodian women waited anxiously as their British boss jumped onto a cutting table with a bullhorn, worried that he would tell them they had lost their jobs.

But instead of delivering bad news, the manager, Adrian Ross, said he would be the host at a company picnic to celebrate the Cambodian New Year on April 15 at an advanced new factory his company had built down the road. "It's been hard work this year," Ross said. "Now it's time to have fun."

Thanks to an unorthodox labor program backed by the United States and intended to improve working conditions, much of Cambodia's garment industry has been holding its own since the end of the global quota system that parceled out shares of the apparel and textile business country by country. A majority of Cambodia's factories have retained the loyalty of major retailers around the world by appealing not just to their need for low-cost production but also to their desire to avoid the stigma of exploiting poor laborers in distant sweatshops.

For 30 years, the global quotas -- which were abolished on Jan. 1 -- did not just slow the loss of clothing jobs in advanced industrial nations; they also helped some destitute countries by giving them guaranteed entry into the $400 billion global trade in apparel and textiles.

But now, many poor countries are searching for ways to keep their nascent apparel industries functioning in a world of unfettered competition -- where China has been unleashed and is trying to grab as much of the business as it can.

Cambodia, while still a very cheap place to produce apparel, has chosen to rely on outside inspectors and to foster unusually strong garment unions that have become an independent political force in a country otherwise awash in corruption and cronyism. The efforts at improvement here may point the way for other nations seeking to avoid a race to the bottom as they struggle to establish or sustain footholds in the global economy.

Despite the loss of special access to the American market with the end of quotas, the Cambodian government, many garment-factory owners and the unions here are sticking to their higher standards. All agree that these factors have helped Cambodia escape much of the convulsion that is sweeping through the global apparel industry.

Cham Prasith, the Cambodian minister of commerce who reached the deal with Washington in 1999, said the benefits had gone beyond anyone's expectations.

"We are extending our labor standards beyond the end of the quotas because we know that is why we continue to have buyers," he said in an interview. "If we didn't respect the unions and the labor standards, we would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs."

Cambodia's gamble on labor rights appears to be succeeding. Sixteen large plants are scheduled to begin production this year, more than replacing about a dozen factories that have failed.