Garment Exports Not Affected by US Trade Law

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A garment factory worker in Phnom Penh. Garments remain the backbone of Cambodia’s exports. Reuters

There is no risk of the Kingdom’s garment and footwear exports being hurt by the 2015 Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act signed into law by US President Barack Obama this February, said a government official and industry insiders yesterday. The wide-ranging bill closes a legal loophole that allowed the US to import goods made by forced labor if American consumer demand could not be satisfied otherwise.
 
Soeng Sophary, spokesperson of the Ministry of Commerce told Khmer Times yesterday that the US bill signed into law was important to ensure that bilateral trade between Cambodia and the US did not involve exports that were made by workers who were abused at their workplace.
 
“We understand the purpose of the law and we do not support nor encourage any form of labor abuse in Cambodia, particularly in the trade sector,” said Ms. Sophary.
 
“We bring in foreign investors in order to create jobs for local people and eventually to contribute to the country’s economic growth to help reduce poverty,” she added.
 
Ms. Sophary said that though Cambodia is a developing country, it was making serious efforts to improve the working conditions of garment and footwear factory workers through the Better Factories program with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
 
“The Better Factories program benefits workers, employers and their organizations. It benefits consumers in Western countries and helps reduce poverty,” she said, adding that the US Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act will not affect Cambodia’s garment and footwear exports.
 
Garment and footwear remains the backbone of Cambodia’s exports. In 2015, combined garment and footwear exports accounted for 78 percent of the country’s total merchandise exports. The US is the second-biggest market for Cambodian garment products. In 2015, 30 percent of garment exports were shipped to the US market, according to the ILO.
 
According to the US Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, some 350 common products globally are made with forced labor, including child labor. The list maintained by the US Department of Labor includes garments from Bangladesh, sugarcane from Brazil and shrimp from Thailand.
 
“The law is not a ban on imports of whole categories of goods from specific countries, rather, the Department of Homeland Security can detain specific shipments at the US border if it has evidence that forced labor was used in their production,” wrote Jay Raman, spokesman for the US embassy to Phnom Penh, in an email to Khmer Times.
 
“The agency does not generally target entire product lines or industries in problematic countries or regions. There are currently no withhold release orders against any manufacturers in Cambodia,” he said in the email.
 
Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, told Khmer Times yesterday that there was not much to worry about when it came to the country’s garment and footwear industry, in comparison with other countries making similar products for export.
 
“Many know Cambodia as one the first countries to implement a labor standard-linked trade policy through the Better Factories program. Of course, more needs to be done, but Cambodia is on a continuous improvement path,” said Mr. Monika.
 
Esther Germans, program manager for ILO in Cambodia told Khmer Times yesterday that the agency measures compliance with core labor standards, including on forced labor. She said that to date, forced labor violations have not been found by ILO programs, apart from a few rare cases where workers were forced work overtime.
 
“So in that sense the impact of this law on the exporting sector for garments is expected to be very limited ‒ if there is any impact at all,” she said.

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