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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cambodia: prison labor concerns

A new law legalizes the use of prison labor by private companies, putting Cambodia's "sweatshop-free" reputation on the line.


Prisoners at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia,
detail garments from the Croft & Barrow brand,
which is owned by the Milwaukee-based Kohl's Department Stores. (Courtesy)
 PHNOM PENH — Take a look at what you’re wearing. If any of your clothes bear a “Made in Cambodia” label, it’s a safe bet they were produced under decent conditions, by relatively well-paid workers.

The Cambodian garment industry is small by global standards, but it has one big thing going for it: as Western clothing brands have become increasingly sensitive to the conditions in their supply chains, Cambodia has set itself up as a “sweatshop-free” alternative to garment giants like China and Bangladesh.

Though such standards are not always upheld in practice, the country has become something of a boutique destination for foreign brands concerned about corporate social responsibility.

But all this could be about to change. Human rights groups say the country’s hard-won reputation is on the line following the passage of a new law that legalizes the use of prison labor by private companies — including garment contractors.



The law, approved by Cambodia’s Senate late last month, gives the general director of prisons the power “to enter into a contract to allow prisoners to work for any organization or individual” in industry or farming.

Rights groups say the new rules fly in the face of both Cambodian and international labor laws, such as Convention 29 of the International Labor Organization. It also puts the country’s trade partners — which include US firms — at risk of importing garments and footwear unlawfully produced by prisoners.

“What they’ve done with this new law is open Pandora’s Box,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW). “All of a sudden [prison officials] are going to have a captive prison workforce that they can use to contract labor production for a fraction of what a normal company would pay to a free person.”

More from GlobalPost: Angelina Jolie's legacy in Cambodia

There are good reasons to worry. For a start, Cambodian prisoners live in appalling conditions.

According to the local rights group Licadho, the government allots just 2,800 riels (about $0.70) per day to feed each prisoner, and inmates are packed like sardines into overcrowded cells. In these conditions, exploitation is rife.

“Inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption,” Licadho reports. “There is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable, from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”

More from GlobalPost: When genocide turns personal in Cambodia

Since 2009, according to information shared by HRW, Prey Sar, Phnom Penh’s main correctional facility, as well as jails in Kandal, Takeo, Battambang, Svay Rieng and Preah Sihanouk provinces, have set up small-scale prison labor programs. While nominally producing goods for the domestic market, there is some evidence that prisoners have produced goods for export, including to the US.

Photos obtained by GlobalPost appear to show female prisoners at Prey Sar working on garments bearing the Croft & Barrow and Sonoma brands, both owned by the Wisconsin-based Kohl’s Department Stores. The 1930 Tariff Act bans the import to the US of any goods that have been produced with forced labor. The photo attached to this story is one such photo, and below is another. The source of the photos wished to remain unidentified.

The contents of the photos, dating from late 2009 and early 2010, could not be independently verified. But rights activists say the corruption and squalor of the Cambodian prison system mean that the passage of the new law could trigger a steady leak of for-export garment work into prisons.

Already, local media have reported that prisons in Battambang, Kandal and Takeo are planning to establish for-profit garment schemes under the new law. Cambodian prison officials say the programs are voluntary, with profits being split among inmates, prison management and reinvestment in raw materials.

At the same time, the government also claims it is taking a strong line against the use of prison laborers in export production.

In July, the Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh rose the issue in a letter to the head of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the apparel industry, writing that the use of “impure” sources of labor could “cause the buyers in main import countries to cancel their buying agreements” and result in “a disaster” for an industry that employs around 300,000 Cambodians.

Ken Loo, GMAC’s secretary general, said similarly that his organization opposed the use of prisoners to assemble for-export garments, and would investigate any allegations. “The fact that it’s legal here doesn’t change things for other countries where we export,” he told GlobalPost.

Vicki Shamion, a spokesperson for Kohl’s Department Stores, said her company was unaware that any of its products had been or were being manufactured in Cambodian jails, but that its vendor guidelines “expressly forbid the use of bonded labor, indentured labor, prison labor or forced labor in the manufacture or finishing of products ordered by Kohl’s.”

“We take allegations related to violation of these terms very seriously,” Shamion said. She added that recent allegations would be investigated.

Whether or not government checks succeed remains an open question. HRW says turning Cambodia’s ramshackle prisons into ad hoc garment factories — for domestic production or otherwise — has the potential to call into question the standards of the entire industry.

“I have no confidence whatsoever that the government of Cambodia has either the political will or the capacity to prevent prison production for profit from ending up in the export stream,” Robertson said.

Adam Hutchinson, executive director of the Prison Fellowship Cambodia, which provides services in 24 Cambodian prisons, said it was important to distinguish between the use of prison labor for producing export goods, and inmate labor programs in general.

“Prison work schemes, if used well, can be of great benefit for both prisoners and prisons,” he said. But the “inefficiency and inconsistency” in monitoring capacity meant that prison labor systems were “open for abuse.”

“There seems to be no clearly defined process at the present moment,” Hutchinson said. Read more!

Fading memories give K.Rouge trial slow start

By Michelle Fitzpatrick (AFP)

PHNOM PENH — Cambodia's historic Khmer Rouge trial has barely begun but one verdict is already in: the fragile health and failing memories of the elderly accused and witnesses will make for a long, slow road to justice.

More than three decades after up to two million people died in the country's "Killing Fields" era, a UN-backed tribunal began hearing evidence over the past week in the case against the Khmer Rouge's three most senior surviving leaders.

For the hundreds of Cambodians who came to the Phnom Penh court each day hoping for answers that could shed light on the secretive 1975-1979 regime, the proceedings proved an exercise in patience -- punctuated by frequent bathroom breaks.

Judges pleaded for "flexibility" from all parties as they were forced to constantly adjust the schedule to accommodate the needs of the first four men to give evidence -- including defendant "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea.

"We saw a lot of hurdles this week from technical glitches to recollection issues and age issues," said tribunal monitor Clair Duffy from the US-based Open Society Justice Initiative.

"It kind of set the stage for what this trial will be like, because these issues will crop up time and again."

Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, who died in 1998, the hardline communist movement wiped out nearly a quarter of the population through starvation, forced labour and execution in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia.

Co-defendants Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary and ex-head of state Khieu Samphan deny charges including war crimes and genocide.

A fourth accused, 79-year-old former social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, who is married to Ieng Sary and was Pol Pot's sister-in-law, was recently ruled unfit to stand trial due to dementia.

Owing to fears that not all the suspects will live to see a verdict, the court has split their complex case into several smaller trials, starting with the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and related crimes against humanity.

"But even this first mini-trial is going to take one or two years," Nuon Chea's lawyer Michiel Pestman told AFP. "It's going to be a very long, tiring process. It's like a trial with a Zimmer (walking) frame."

Nuon Chea, 85, was first to give evidence on Monday, and although the session was cut short because he was suffering from fatigue and high blood pressure, his performance was easily the highlight of the week.

Pol Pot's most trusted deputy gave detailed insight into the rise of the communist movement in Cambodia, rarely needing to refer to a blue binder filled with notes to jog his memory, though he did repeatedly complain of tiredness.

In his testimony, broadcast live on television, he claimed the Vietnamese were instead to blame for the mass killings -- and were still trying to encroach on Cambodian land.

Judges later turned their attention to the first high-profile witness, a former aide to Ieng Sary, who spoke via videolink as he was too ill to leave his home in northern Cambodia.

Long Norin, 73, appeared to struggle to recount exact dates and events.

"It has been 30 years. How can I remember all these things?" he said in exasperation after the prosecution probed him about the tasks he carried out under Ieng Sary.

Taking evidence from the Khmer Rouge insider, who prosecutors said seemed "reluctant" to testify, was an agonisingly slow process interrupted by the witness's numerous toilet breaks and trouble with the audio technology, requiring questions to be repeated several times.

In an effort to bring at least one testimony this week to a close and avoid renewed hassle with the interactive set-up, judges said the court would exceptionally sit on a Friday.

But that hearing was adjourned as soon as it began after Long Norin called in sick -- disappointing the 300 high school students who had travelled for more than two hours by bus to catch the trial in action.

"We will come back again. We want to know about the Pol Pot regime," said Seang Virak, 19, after the session ended abruptly, allowing him only a quick glimpse of the accused.

"I am very angry with them because they killed people all over the country," he said.

Unfailingly polite, however, the teenager added: "But I am sorry to hear the witness is sick."
Read more!