Excessive heat, flooding and pollution are some of the negative environmental effects a majority of garment workers in Cambodia say they have experienced in their factories, resulting in lost pay, illness and other hardships, according to a new study examining the toll of climate change on workers in the garment industry.
“What we’re seeing now is that during the rainy season, factories will be flooded, and floods cut off roads so workers cannot commute to the workplace,” says Sina Pav, president of the Collective Union of the Movement of Workers (CUMW), which represents more than 30 local garment worker unions. CUMW negotiated an agreement with employers in which workers receive 50 percent of their pay when factories close due to flooding, but nonunionized workers typically receive no wages for the days or even weeks a factory is closed.
Lost pay is especially burdensome for workers in precarious jobs: Even before the recent surge in inflation, garment workers’ wages failed to keep up with the cost of living, with their minimum wage at $194 per month.
Climate Change: Far-Reaching Effects on Workers
While the impact of climate change is more obvious for agricultural workers and others who make their living outdoors, the report makes clear that escalating heat, pollution and rain adversely affect workers in a range of jobs.
“It was not sizzling like this in the past, 10 years ago,” says Sarath, a union representative in a Kandal factory, quoted in the report. “Nowadays, it is burning from 9 a.m. In Cambodia, we have flooding and many other things … the weather has changed dramatically.”
Some 22 percent of Cambodian garment workers experiencing heat stress reported that it compromised their ability to work, and 6 percent said they had missed work as a result of excess heat, according to the report. As workers suffer, the survey finds a 2.75 percent reduction in overall productivity which, if extrapolated across the country, would translate to an average annual $290 million reduction in Cambodia’s value of export goods.
Climate Change Harshest in Poor Working Conditions
Poor working conditions exacerbate the effects of climate change. In a key finding, the report says workers on fixed-term contracts are substantially more likely to perceive temperature changes than workers on unlimited duration contracts (85 percent versus 47 percent).
Employers frequently keep workers on short-term, fixed-duration contracts, in many cases using loopholes to allow them to do so for longer than the legally permitted time, or firing workers before they would be legally required to move onto undetermined duration contracts. With no job security, workers on short-term contracts fear they will lose their jobs if they join unions, which have worked to address health and safety issues related to climate change long before issues of excessive heat and flooding had a name.
“Climate change put a label on what we understood. These are not new issues for the union,” says Pav. “I think people can generally agree it is getting quite hotter, but more important, we want the employer to be aware of and address the issues.”
CMUW has been working with garment employers to address heat by adding exhaust fans, insulation and cooling systems to factories. Government also has a role, he says, in providing proper infrastructure such as functioning sewage systems. Key to moving solutions are the fashion brands that contract with factories.
“Brands have an important role to urge implemention and prevent climate change,” he said, citing how the recent involvement of a fashion brand sped up what had been protracted negotiations with a garment factory owner over heat mitigation.
One worker “also worries about her ability to work overtime, which has often been a prerequisite by demanding factory managers for workers keeping their jobs, as the labor rights organization Solidarity Center noted in its 2019 “Alternative Report on Labor Rights and Gender.”
In response to mounting public pressure, companies have moved rapidly to launch media campaigns highlighting their commitment to a green future. The global garment industry is no different. Behind much of this “greenwashing” remains the reality that the garment supply chain was designed to take advantage of production in countries where labor and environmental regulations are lax and to minimize brand responsibility for the practices of supplier factories.
As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, women workers around the world are leading struggles to safeguard democracy and improve wages and working conditions, often facing arrest or violence.
Berinette, a worker who was part of the February 9 and 10 demonstrations, spoke about the shocking police violence. “We thought they were protecting us and they were destroying us,” she said. “They shot rubber bullets and they fired tear gas at us. They beat us but, despite this, we didn’t fear and we were never afraid.”
In February, General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso led the National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA) to a landmark election victory in Mexico, when the independent union won the right to represent over 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao.
In a union election with a 90 percent turnout, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots. SINTTIA defeated the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years and derived its strength from cultivating relationships with politicians and corporations while keeping wages low.
SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso Credit: Solidarity Center
Workers succeeded in making their voices heard despite attempts to buy votes and threats of violence against union leaders and activists. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.
“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.
In a podcast interview with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, Morales Reynoso said the union’s victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely.
“We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Morales Reynoso said.
On February 1, one year after the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by a military junta, Phyo Sandar Soe, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), was among five-member presidium elected by the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). Sandar is the youngest person and the only woman elected to the presidium.
Women workers played a leading role early on in the protests against the Myanmar coup, in which the country’s 450,000 garment workers were especially active in organizing civil disobedience and factory shutdowns. They have asked international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.
CTUM General Phyo Sanda Soe, Credit: Solidarity Center
An estimated 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup, and nearly 12,000 imprisoned, most tortured. The military junta especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many others fled the country or went into hiding. Demonstrating workers continue to be arrested under the pretense of spreading Covid-19 as Cambodian authorities repeatedly abuse the country’s COVID-19 law to break up the strike
Speaking from a safehouse, in a podcast interview with Bader-Blau, Sandar spoke of the strength of workers standing together despite repression and personal danger.
“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other. We are finding solutions to fight back. That’s why I want to tell our brothers and sisters to endure this duration because we have very high motivation to fight back against the junta, she said.”
In early January in Cambodia, Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) President Sithar Chhim was one of nine union leaders arrested during a peaceful strike and was violently taken away when she attempted to join her colleagues in a picket line at the NagaWorld hotel and casino.
Hundreds of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians are on strike to demand the reinstatement of 365 workers who were fired months earlier. While management claimed the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say nearly all of those laid off were union leaders or members.
The layoffs took place shortly after the union won a wage increase that boosted pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September 2019 for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages.
Eight union leaders jailed for peacefully walking a picket line at NagaWorld Hotel and Casino in Cambodia have been denied pre-trial release, and government officials are now using the COVID-19 pandemic to further interfere with workers’ right to assemble, according to the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld union (LRSU).
During a raid on union offices December 31, police arrested union leaders and seized computers and phones. The leaders are charged with incitement, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.
Activists in Bangkok stand in support of striking NagaWorld workers at the Cambodian Embassy, Credit: Thai labor activists
As workers entered their tenth week walking the picket line February 4, the government demanded the strikers leave to take COVID-19 tests, despite the lack of mass COVID-19 testing elsewhere in Cambodia. Recent photos show government officials at maskless social events where COVID-19 tests were not required.
After workers refused to leave the picket line, authorities sent doctors and medical staff to test those on strike, not allowing them to leave until they took a test. More than 700 workers have now been tested, and with four positive COVID-19 cases, LRSU has since suspended the strike for 10 days.
Three NagaWorld workers were detained for allegedly obstructing implementation of the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases. They were interrogated for days and must appear before a court this week. The LRSU is calling out the government for using legal intimidation to stop a peaceful strike.
In addition, a striker’s husband was detained and taken to the police station because he had been taking photos of authorities. He says he was forced to sign an agreement promising not to take photos of authorities in the future before he was released.
Global Support for NagaWorld Workers
Members of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Seattle joined solidarity events to support NagaWorld workers. Credit: APALA, Seattle Chapter
Thousands of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians went on strike in late November, demanding the reinstatement of 365 employees who were fired in April. While management asserts the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say those laid off were all union leaders and activists.
The workers’ strike has gained global support, as global unions, human rights organizations and others have demanded they be allowed to freely exercise their rights to peacefully assemble, strike and form unions.
In Canberra, Australia, activists joined the Day of Action in support of NagaWorld workers. Credit: APHEDA
During a ”Global Day of Action” February 7, solidarity events took place at Cambodian embassies and consulates in 11 cities on four continents. The action coincided with NagaCorp’s board meeting where, despite the corporation’s claims it fired workers due to slowing business during the pandemic, company leaders stressed it is a very strong financial position, with higher than predicted revenue, and that the business is returning to profitability
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