By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, June 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Levi's, H&M and Gap Inc. have backed a ruling that restricts the use of short-term contracts for garment workers in Cambodia, where critics say they are widely used to control staff and silence dissent.
The companies behind the three global fashion brands said they stood by an arbitration council's ruling that a factory supplying them must give permanent contracts to 408 workers it employed on a short-term basis.
The ruling is significant because it could force hundreds of others to follow suit, ending what labour rights campaigners have condemned as the historic abuse of short-term contracts in the country's $7 billion garment industry.
"We have made it clear that the factory must comply with the Arbitration Council ruling," H&M spokeswoman Ulrika Isaksson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The factory's owner, Taiwan-based Roo Hsing Garment Co. Ltd, did not respond to a request for comment.
The company had indicated it would challenge the ruling, but the government has since made clear it backs the arbitration court's interpretation of the law, meaning an appeal would have little chance of success.
That is good news for Soeun Sophos, one of the 408 claimants in the case, who is pregnant with her first child.
The 28-year-old has been making H&M pants for six years, but always on short-term contracts, and said she had never felt secure in the job.
"With short-term contracts, we are totally vulnerable," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a roadside barbecue joint after work.
"They can dismiss us at any time. Everything is in their hands."
The garment industry is a pillar of Cambodia's economy, accounting for 40% of gross domestic product and employing more than 700,000 people, mostly women.
But it is rife with labour and human rights violations, according to labour rights groups.
In a survey of 464 factories, more than two-thirds of workers said bosses were illegally using short-term contracts, according to Better Factories Cambodia, a monitoring group overseen by the International Labour Organization.
Workers on short-term contracts are seen as less likely to be involved in unions, to report abuses, or to push back against bosses racing to meet rising production targets, for fear of losing their job.
The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, which represents all exporting factories, had opposed the arbitration council's January ruling, but said the government's latest statement had made the law on short-term contracts clear.
"Obviously all the factories will have to follow the clarification - we will be sending an advisory to all our members," said its secretary-general Ken Loo.
Gap did not directly address the Roo Hsing dispute, but said it stood by the arbitrators' decisions.
"We have communicated to all our suppliers in Cambodia our expectations that vendors adhere to rulings made by the Labour Arbitration Council," spokeswoman Debbie Felix said.
Levi's would take punitive action should the factory backtrack on a commitment to accept the ruling, spokesman Phil Zabriskie said.
"Roo Hsing has agreed to implement the ruling, pending additional clarification which is expected soon," he said.
Under increased scrutiny as the world becomes informed of abuse faced by workers in fashion supply chains, Cambodia's garment sector has been overhauled in recent years.
The minimum wage now stands at $182 per month - up from $61 in 2012.
But as salaries and standards rise, so do production targets, workers and advocates said, as factories look to offset increased costs.
"Threats of contract non-renewal are used to force workers into working regular overtime, meeting excessive production targets and from engaging in independent trade unionism," said Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
"Bosses love short-term contracts because as soon as a worker is brave enough to stand up for their rights, they can silence the dissent."
Last week's legal clarification settled a debate between workers and employers over how Article 67 of Cambodia's Labour Law should be interpreted.
It made clear that, aside from an initial probationary period, those who have served for two years or more are entitled to contract upgrades, to permanent positions with bonuses and benefits.
"There's really no excuse now. 'Differing interpretations' has always been the standard excuse for non-implementation of the law," Tola said.
Living in a one-room apartment that backs the factory, Sophos is six months shy of three months of paid maternity leave - a cost she worries her bosses could opt out of by cutting her loose.
The clarification of Article 67, however, puts her in line for a contract upgrade - and a break from having to work 60-hour weeks for about $50.
"I do what is asked of me," she said. "Will they give me what is mine?"
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg @BlombergMD; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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