Any temporary suspension of the Everything-but-arms (EBA) treaty, or any short-term unilateral sanctions, might have a long-term negative impact on the lives of workers and their families, said the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) in a letter pleading for European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom’s consideration on the matter.
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“All the progress that Cambodia has achieved over the past two decades through the efforts of all the stakeholders, including development partners like the European Union, could be destroyed very quickly,” said its secretary-general Ken Loo in the letter dated Oct 20.
The letter was also copied to European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and EC vice president and high representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy Frederica Mogherini.
Previously, the association –which represents some 400 factories that employ 700,000 workers – made more bold statements following Ms Malmstrom’s Oct 5 announcement that the commission has begun the process to withdraw the EBA, granted in 2011.
GMAC was certain the withdrawal would not occur and that the EU would notice the efforts that have been made to protect labour rights.
However, in its letter – a first from the association to Ms Malmstrom – it said the EU announcement was shocking for the private sector, including investors, workers and buyers who source from Cambodia.
“Our sectors employ more than 85 percent of women from rural provinces. It is estimated that some two million depend on our sectors. Every month, more than $150 million is paid out as salaries to the workers.
“Due to the effort of all stakeholders – including trade unions, and the government – the sectors have grown and contributed significantly to the economy and improved the livelihoods of our workers. Millions of women have been lifted out of poverty,” Mr Loo wrote.
The announcement by the EU came after a call by the bloc to Cambodia to fix its political situation or risk ‘specific targeted measures’ after opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November, and its leader Kem Sokha put on house arrest.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was re-elected into office for the fifth time in July, was unmoved by the EU’s statement, and said the nation would defend its sovereignty.
In Brussels last week, Mr Hun Sen said the EBA withdrawal would not affect Cambodia as the treaty would have been eventually cancelled regardless of the EU’s current review.
“The point I would like to tell all compatriots is: have you lost your jobs or income yet? Nothing has been lost, but they issue this review as a psychological war attack,” he said.
Meanwhile, GMAC’s Mr Loo reiterated that the EU is an important trading partner for Cambodia, particularly to the apparel and footwear sectors. Mr Loo said that more than 46 percent of Cambodia’s apparel and footwear exports are sent to the EU, adding that he hopes this figure will increase in coming years.
As such, Mr Loo said GMAC remains optimistic that the sector would not be subject to any sweeping or targeted sanctions.
“Our proven track record in upholding 15 international conventions relating to core human and labour rights and the 12 conventions on environment, good governance and the fight against drug production and trafficking stand testament to our commitments,” he said.
He added that Cambodia was a pioneer in linking labour with trade, boasting a monitoring system known as ‘Better Factories Cambodia’ run by the International Labour Organisation that has been in operation since 2001.
“We are committed to the process of continuous improvement for our sector, and our workers. We need the support of all our partners including EU to make this happen … We are ready to provide you with more facts during your monitoring process,” the letter read.