The Cambodian government is failing to protect garment workers - mostly women - from labour rights abuses, the independent New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its latest report.
"The predominantly women workers often experience forced overtime, pregnancy-based discrimination, and anti-union practices that neither the government nor major brands have adequately addressed,'' HRW charged in the 140-page report "Work Faster or Get Out'' released on Thursday in Phnom Penh.
"Women workers from 30 factories cited specific abuses, including refusing to hire, renew short-term contracts, or provide reasonable accommodation for pregnant workers, making it difficult for them to work in factories'' HRW said.
The sector is rife with short term contracts which enable employers to avoid paying benefits to workers, who are vulnerable to being fired at any time. Workers from some factories found it difficult to take medically approved sick leave.
Unlawful child labour had also been detected in 11 of the factories examined, HRW stated.
Under Cambodian law, garment factories can employ children aged 15 and above. But all children below age 18 should only be engaged in light work and not for more than eight hours a day.
But violations were rife, from children being paid less than the minimum wage, to being made to work long hours, HRW said.
"All workers who reported seeing children in their factories consistently recounted how managers told children to hide or leave the factory on days when 'visitors' came,'' the report said.
And without naming the factories, HRW said it had spoken with four children who recounted how they began working when they were younger than 15.
Cambodia's US$5.5 billion (S$7.63 billion) garment sector employs more than 700,000 people - 90 per cent of them women.
The minimum wage for these workers who make apparel for global brands like Puma, H&M, Gap, Adidas, Inditex, Levi Strauss, Columbia, Nike and Walmart, is US$ 128 per month.
Investments are mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea, according to government data.
HRW interviewed 270 workers from 73 factories in Phnom Penh and nearby provinces, plus union leaders, government representatives, labour rights advocates, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, and international apparel brand representatives.
"The worst abuses were reported in smaller subcontractor factories, which produce for larger factories with export licences'' HRW said.
"Workers from 35 factories reported anti-union practices including dismissal and intimidation of newly elected union leaders, and shorter-term contracts for men to discourage them from forming or joining unions.''
"In some cases, the pressure to meet production targets increased after minimum wages increased in 2013 and 2014.''
The sector has seen periodic upheavals over work conditions, particularly in 2013. In January last year, striking workers demanding higher wages were shot at by security forces. Five were killed.
Last year, Cambodia's Ministry of Labour began an integrated labour inspection mechanism, but the effort was still inadequate, HRW said.
In a telephone interview from Phnom Penh, Ms Aruna Kashyap, senior women's rights researcher at HRW, told The Straits Times that while the Ministry of Labour had beefed up its inspections, and mechanisms existed under Cambodian law to warn factories, fine them, and take them to court, the quality of inspections had been poor.
HRW had contacted the ministry with its concerns in November last year, she said, and had received a reply that it was still in the process of developing a ''consolidated checklist'' for factory inspections.
"This is in an industry that has existed since 1997,'' she said. "Yet the labour inspection system is still dysfunctional.''
This article was first published on March 12, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.