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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cambodian garment workers worry about future prospects

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Sath Vanny sits anxiously at the door to her tiny one-room hut in the factory district of Cambodia's capital.

She left her hometown in the southern province of Takeo seven years ago to work at a women's shirt factory, sending most of her earnings back to help the family farm.

But a slowdown in orders has the 25-year-old worried about her job. Overtime work has fallen off as Cambodia's textile sector, the country's biggest industrial employer, struggles against stiffer global competition and slowing demand.

More than 10 Chinese-owned factories have moved to cheaper markets, leaving hundreds of thousands of garment workers -- mostly young women like Vanny who support their impoverished families -- facing destitution.

"I was told that we didn't have as many orders as we used to, but with the basic wage I don't have money to send to my parents," says Vanny, who now earns less than 60 dollars per month.

"I can't imagine living without a factory job. I am so worried about my family," she adds, wiping away tears.

The garment industry earns 80 percent of Cambodia's foreign exchange earnings and employs an estimated 350,000 people in more than 300 factories.

The industry thrived after a unique labour-friendly deal with the United States in the 1990s.

Under the deal, Cambodia passed new labour laws, encouraged labour unions and allowed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to inspect factories and publish its findings.

In turn, the United States cut tariffs on Cambodian garment exports, buying 70 percent of all of the country's textiles.

Cambodia maintained its higher working conditions after the deal expired in 2005, and garment-making has made the economy one of the fastest growing in the region. But it does not look built to last.

The industry grew only 8.0 percent last year after suffering a dismal fourth quarter that saw orders plummet by nearly half, according to the World Bank. It previously enjoyed growth of up to 20 percent.

Apparel exports have declined since October, mainly due to the US economic slowdown, according to Cambodia's commerce ministry.

Exports to the United States slipped 1.44 percent in the first quarter, compared with the same period last year, to some 500 million dollars, it added.

Meanwhile factory owners are looking abroad for greater productivity and lower costs, says Cambodia's Free Trade Union (FTU).

Sok Vannak, who has been working at a factory for almost 10 years, says her Chinese bosses often threaten to move the factory to Vietnam, where costs are cheaper.

"They warn us all the time. I'm afraid that it could come true," says the 27-year-old.

"I have no land to farm. Without the factory we will have a hard time surviving," Vannak says.

Garments are a shifting industry, says Kaing Monika, manager at the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia. Many manufacturers could move to Vietnam, Bangladesh or India, he adds.

"Production costs -- oil and power -- are high in Cambodia, and the demand for higher wages also put the country's garment industry in danger," he says.

Factory owners complain about a proliferation of labour unions and illegal strikes, but workers say they merely want proper wages.

About 27,000 garment workers have quit in the last year in search of higher pay, according the FTU.

Some have gone to look for work in rural areas where the cost of living is lower, while others have found work at karaoke parlours where they're in danger of falling into prostitution, says FTU president Chea Mony.

Next year will bring even more competition when US restrictions on Chinese textile exports are scheduled to end.

"China and Vietnam are still our direct competitors, and so far we have nothing special to offer buyers. That is why we're very concerned," says Oum Mean, of Cambodia's labour ministry.

"To counter this competition, we must increase productivity, quality and extend our reputation as having high labour standards," he says.
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Widow urges arrest of killers of Cambodian opposition journalist

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: The widow of a slain Cambodian opposition journalist urged officials Sunday to find his killers as she cremated his body and that of her son.

Khem Sambo, 47, and his 21-year-old son died after they were gunned down in a drive-by shooting Friday.

Khem Sambo reported on corruption and other social ills under the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen for the opposition newspaper Moneaseka Khmer.

"Please, catch those murderers and find justice for my husband and son," Lay Heang said, her eyes filled with tears as she attended the cremation at a Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh.

Lay Heang, 46, said she had no idea at first that her son, Khat Sarin Pheata, was also hit.

"He called his younger brother to say 'father was shot,'" Lay Heang said.

After the call was disconnected, "I tried to call him back but I could not get through. It did not come to my mind that my son was also hit," she said. "I was hoping to see him have a bright future."

The victims were riding a motorcycle when they were each shot twice by a man riding on the back of another motorcycle, police said.

Yim Simony, police chief for the Phnom Penh district where the killings occurred, said Sunday that police have no suspects in the case.

Moneaseka Khmer editor Dam Sith called the attack "the gravest threat" to his newspaper, which is affiliated with Cambodia's main opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

A party statement said the assassination shows what happens to someone "who dares to write or argue against those with absolute power."

Human rights groups expressed concern that the killing — the first of a Cambodian journalist in five years — threatens the climate for campaigning ahead of July 27 national elections.

The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 private groups, said in a statement it suspected the attack was linked to the many articles Khem Sambo wrote about issues such as illegal logging, illegal fishing deals and land grabbing that involved powerful government officials.

The France-based journalist group Reporters Without Borders urged Cambodian authorities to produce "quick results" in investigating the case, saying "allowing this murder to go unpunished would have a considerable impact" on the elections.

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Analysis: Thai political fight moves from streets to courts

BANGKOK--Opponents of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have every reason to count judges as their allies after a series of court rulings dealt major blows to the five-month-old pro-Thaksin Shinawatra government. Thanks to the army-designed 2007 constitution which gave judges more oversight powers in the political arena, Thaksin's foes hope the courts will root out what they see as his "regime" after a 2006 coup and a renewed street campaign failed to do so.

Two ministers and a top politician from the People Power Party (PPP), which leads a six-party coalition, quit or were banned from politics last week after verdicts from top judges, some of whom played key roles in drafting the new charter.

More cases loom in the weeks and months ahead.

Thaksin, whose first corruption trial got fully underway this week nearly two years after the coup, and his inner circle are likely to face more graft and abuse of power charges this month.

Prime Minister and PPP leader Samak Sundaravej, a veteran political knife-fighter who campaigned on an avowedly pro-Thaksin ticket that won huge support in the countryside, is battling for his government's survival.

Three coalition partners, including the PPP, could be disbanded if they are found guilty of vote fraud, although the cases will likely take months to play out.

"It is not the end of the day for Samak yet because he has some room to maneuver," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political scientist at Ramkhamhaeng University.

"He will stumble through this legal minefield and dissolve parliament and call a snap election only after he runs out of cards to play," Boonyakiat said.

Activist judges

The 2007 constitution gave more powers to the courts to act as a check and balance on elected politicians. Thaksin's riding roughshod over independent watchdog agencies during his five years in office was cited as one of the reasons for the coup.

But analysts said the judicial moves are unlikely to end the struggle between Thaksin's supporters and his opponents in the royalist and business establishment.

They say Samak's first priority will be to recruit respected experts into his embattled cabinet to revive a stuttering economy and the government's popularity, never above 50 percent since it took office in February.

Samak will also want to ensure trusted people are put in top positions in the armed forces and other key agencies during the annual government reshuffle in September, the same month the 2006 coup was launched.

Finally, analysts believe Samak will try again to amend the 2007 constitution and weaken the courts' powers, even though a previous effort was shelved in the face of street protests.

The catalyst was the Constitutional Court's ruling on Tuesday that Bangkok's backing of Cambodia's bid to list an ancient temple as a World Heritage site violated the charter because it did not have parliament's approval.

"This will be problematic for the country's diplomacy and we have to amend it," PPP spokesman Gudeb Saikrachang told Reuters after Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama was forced to resign over the issue.

Gudeb said the ruling on the joint communique with Phnom Penh was in fact an international treaty meant the government would need advance parliamentary approval for any statement after a diplomatic meeting.

Charter battle

Any bid to revamp the charter would intensify a nearly two-month old street campaign by middle-class Bangkok royalists and businessmen against Samak, whom they consider Thaksin's proxy.

But such a move would enable Samak to sidestep threats against his premiership and the disbanding of the PPP.

The Election Commission will decide on Wednesday whether Samak, a popular TV chef before he became premier, violated the charter by working for the company that broadcasts his cooking shows after taking office.

The constitution bans cabinet ministers from being an employee of a private company. Samak continued his cooking shows in the first two months of his premiership. Political activists challenged that, prompting Samak to suspend his shows.

If the Constitutional Court agrees with the EC, Samak would be forced to quit as prime minister, analysts said.

In another case, the EC is looking into whether the PPP is guilty of electoral fraud in the December poll after a top party leader was banned from politics for five years for vote buying.

The case could lead to the disbanding of the PPP by the Constitutional Court, which is already reviewing similar allegations against two minor coalition partners.

Chulalongkorn University analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said this "unprecedented judicial assertiveness" would not heal the political polarization and rural/urban divide in Thailand and could risk compromising the judiciary as a whole.

"The fundamental root of the crisis has to do with the disparity between the countryside and Bangkok. That's something the judiciary can't resolve," he said. "In the long run, my fear is that the judiciary will be compromised. They will be seen as partisan. These decisions for or against Thaksin will fit into the polarization pattern."
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