Because I’ve been harping on the dubious morality of buying goods from countries with regimes that (among other evils) repress workers’ rights, I’d like to present an alternative: Cambodia.
The nation of Cambodia, which endured some of the worst tribulations of the past half-century, has managed in recent years to write at least one hopeful chapter. Cambodia has not only established itself as a competitive force in the textile and garment industry but has done so while also honoring a code of labor rights, a rarity among developing nations. The Cambodian labor compliance program is one of the most successful and widely regarded innovations in trade-related partnerships. Industry, government, unions and civil society are unanimous in their praise.
But, she warns, the expiration of a global quota system at the end of this year threatens that success.
With this expiration, the conventional wisdom is that the world’s textile and garment production will shift to China, the global wage floor, where price, speed to market and quality have outpaced the competition — and where bonded labor, corporal punishment, forced and unpaid overtime, and hazardous and abusive working conditions are commonplace.
For many impoverished countries such as Cambodia, the quota system has allowed garment industries to grow, providing jobs for thousands of workers. In Cambodia garments make up more than 80 percent of all exports. If factory production moves to China, Cambodia’s economy will be devastated.
Thanks largely to some retailers’ wishes to avoid sweat-shop scandals, Cambodia’s clothing industry has experienced enormous growth in recent years while complying with International Labor Organization standards.
This could be a watershed moment in free trade, producing an unexpectedly positive result from the expiration of the quota system. If Cambodia takes the risk, investing in its labor-rights market niche to counter China’s cheap labor, other countries may follow suit. Instead of the quota system’s expiration sparking a “race to the bottom,” with each country marketing cheaper labor than the next, the Cambodian example could set an important precedent, strengthening labor standards for textile and garment workers worldwide.
Cambodia’s experiment with workers’ rights may fall short of revolutionary socialism (and given the country’s experience with “revolutionary socialists,” that may not be such a bad thing), but I think it’s worth supporting with our dollars, pounds and other currencies. I’ll be looking for the “Made in Cambodia” label.