Raymond Robertson is a professor and holder of the Helen and Roy Ryu Chair in Economics and Government in the Department of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Widely published in the field of labour economics, Mr Robertson currently chairs the US Department of Labour’s National Advisory Committee for Labour Provisions of US Free Trade Agreements and is a member of the Centre for Global Development’s advisory board.
Khmer Times reporter Mom Kunthear spoke to Mr Robertson last week at the US embassy in Phnom Penh.
KT: Can you tell us your thoughts on the labour sector in Cambodia?
Mr Robertson: I am an economist who has been researching labour in Cambodia and globalisation in general for about ten years now. So, I have been studying the progression of labour conditions and working conditions in the garment factories and how it has changed over time. One of the things that we have observed in the data is that there has been a significant improvement in the working conditions since the beginning of the Better Factories Cambodia programme. These improvements mean that employers are more compliant with national laws and international standards.
KT: Did you support the government increasing the minimum wage for garment and footwear workers?
Mr Robertson: The increase in the minimum wage to $170 a month was a significant increase for workers, which leads to an increase in income and these incomes are very important for the country because the garment workers don’t just support themselves, they also support many parts of the Cambodian economy. So, increasing the minimum wage means significant increases for the standard of living for these workers.
KT: Are you concerned factory owners will move from Cambodia to another country with lower labour costs?
Mr Robertson: That is a very significant concern for the sector and it is one of the reasons why I am here this week to help the Supreme National Economic Council develop a plan for the garment sector. Working with the Ministry of Economy and Finance, we are trying to address concerns that factories could potentially move out of Cambodia in search of lower wages.
KT: How will the plan stop factories from moving countries?
Mr Robertson: Well, the plan is still in progress and I cannot talk about this in much detail. But, it’s actually very comprehensive and addresses just about every major concern you might think of in the sector. One of the things that has come up is improving the position in the value chain, helping Cambodia develop more significant industry, more complicated projects that increase the value, meaning more revenue for workers in the factories to make the sector more sustainable.
One of the very remarkable things about the Cambodian economy is that it has seen impressive growth. We have seen living standards rise for the last several years and from what I hear, predictions are that growth will continue. This growth is very important because it raises the level of development for the country.
KT: Can you compare the labour situation to other countries?
Mr Robertson: Cambodia has set itself apart as an international example of good working conditions. It was the first with the Better Factories Cambodia programme that has now spread to many other countries throughout the world. So, in terms of labour compliance, Cambodia looks very good compared to neighbouring countries.
KT: What does the US think about the labour situation in Cambodia?
Mr Robertson: I think the United States has truly been very supportive of improving working conditions in Cambodia, particularly through its support of the Better Factories Cambodia programme. I think that there’s been an emphasis on improving working conditions and the labour sector throughout the country. I think that has been very clear. One of the things that we want to see is the minimum wage law applied to the rest of the country; this will be another positive step for workers and the country. Previously the minimum wage only applied to the garment sector, which created a gap between the garment sector and other sectors. Now, with the coming minimum wage law, people in rural areas and other sectors will experience rising wages.
KT: I want to turn to migrant workers, as many are still leaving Cambodia for work outside the country. What is your opinion on this?
Mr Robertson: Well, one of the problems with being an economist is that we always find the good things and bad things with just about any situation. One of the points about migration that I have advocated personally through my work at the World Bank is that it helps workers find the highest-paying jobs if they can’t find higher-paying jobs in Cambodia. This increase is their own economic opportunity, obviously. In the longer run, what we will obviously prefer is that the domestic growth in Cambodia creates enough jobs so people stay in the country and contribute here.
KT: What does the government have to do to reduce worker migration?
Mr Robertson: Well, when the draft minimum wage law goes through, we expect that the rising wages would make it more attractive for people to stay here. Also, we see that there’s been talk about more education and better education opportunities. So, people can increase their human capital and start their own businesses or find more productive jobs here in the country. So, improving education, guaranteeing minimum wages and protecting working conditions are all important for keeping workers in the country.
KT: People in rural areas have lower educations and less property, and often migrate for work because they cannot compete with urban job seekers. How do we quell this trend?
Mr Robertson: Right, this is a problem that is not unique to Cambodia. This is the problem all countries seem to face in the early stages of development. What we’ve seen that tends to work is a focus by the government to increase education levels in the countryside by dedicating schools and especially primary schools and creating incentives to make sure that children remain in school.
I can give you a great example of a policy that has worked in another country, which is Mexico. They had the same problem in the rural areas where children did not attend school because they had to work to support the family. So, what the government did was they told the families we will give you some income support, we will send you money. But the condition is you have to make sure that your children attend school. If the children do not attend school, you do not get government support. And this programme became known as conditional cash transfer and became very successful throughout Mexico and has been replicated in Latin America. This is the type of programme that would help address the problem that you raised about not enough education in the countryside.
KT: What is your message to Cambodian people?
Mr Robertson: Cambodia has been a very positive example of improving labour conditions for the world. But it is important not to just rest on your laurels. It’s important to continue to push and move forward to identify more opportunities so that the next generation of Cambodians have well-paying jobs. That will take a coordinated effort with multiple stakeholders, including unions, the government and businesses. By working together, they can guarantee a successful future for the country of Cambodia.