The true cost of progress
Author: Katie Bjorem Date Posted: 15 April 2018
The sun has barely started its scorching ascent, yet the Cambodian streets are already restless, as across the country thousands of workers clamber into the back of open aired trucks.
Six days a week these crowded vehicles rush more than 700,000(1) workers along arterial roads to the gates of garment factories.
But lurking beneath the festivity, the industry itself is beginning to groan under the weight of blistering change as Cambodia starts to lose its competitive edge.
In fact, last year more than 70 factories closed(5) and the growth of exports has dramatically slowed.(6) The threat of a slow exodus of international businesses from Cambodia is now looming ominously over the textile industry.
Which raises an important question: how can we ensure that an increase in workers’ fundamental rights does not result in the loss of workers’ jobs?
There’s no easy answer, but a vivisection of both the domestic and international response can at least provide a diagnosis of some of the major issues.
Firstly, while regulating wages and conditions is an important step for the government, it’s essentially a hollow initiative if it’s not supported by the necessary infrastructure and provisions. In theory, increasing the taxable income of such a large percentage of society, should result in an increase of social services: better roads, affordable electricity, improved technology, and education and health care should lead to higher productivity in the short term and higher skills in the long term. However, the rate of productivity in factories is not increasing, nor is it comparable to countries like Vietnam and China.(7)
This is exacerbated by a scarcity of training opportunities for staff, vividly demonstrated by the thousands of workers in factories performing the same procedure year after year.
According to the Asian Development Bank, 40% of Cambodians lack sufficient education to adequately perform their jobs,(8) which has also hindered the birth of new industries in the country, such as low-tech manufacturing.