International Labour Day: women’s labour rights in Cambodia's garment industry
1 May 2015
In recognition of International Labour Day, CARE Cambodia is working to ensure that the needs of women working in garment factories are recognised. The issues of workers in the garment sector are often dominated by discussion of minimum wages and union regulation. Yet it is important to ensure that other topics specific to women, such as maternity provisions and freedom from sexual harassment, are not overshadowed. In a sector where an estimated 90% of the workers are female, CARE believes is it vital that their voices are heard and their needs addressed.
Many challenges within the sector as a whole can disproportionately affect women. Short term contracts may be used by employers to avoid paying maternity leave. Production pressures which discourage sick leave can prevent pregnant women from attending medical check-ups and harm their health. A recent report identified sexual harassment as commonly occurring in garment factories—an issue which is almost entirely experienced by women. 
CARE’s recent research revealed that women working in the garment industry perceive a regular and daily risk of sexual harassment. This can range from verbal harassment – with managers using offensive and degrading language to demean women in the workplace – to direct, unwelcome sexual advances. As a result of sexual harassment, women often do not feel safe at work.
This affects women’s ability to access dignified working conditions and their ability to earn income. The extent of this is illustrated by a comment made by one garment worker: “If I complain against him then he won’t repair my machine. I need to work and earn money.” Women are held hostage by their need to generate income and without employer support have no way to prevent this.
However, despite article 172 of Cambodia’s Labor Law forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace, CARE’s analysis of this highlighted that employers are unclear what constitutes sexual harassment. As a result, very little to no action is taken by employers to prevent workplace sexual harassment.
The report mentioned above highlighted the need for improved reporting mechanisms: “Workers said they had no access to independent complaint mechanisms in factories where they could safely complain and seek redress for workplace sexual harassment.”
CARE is working to change this. Having advised a working group composed of factory HR and administration managers on creating standardised sexual harassment guidelines, staff are now consulting with individual factories to review their policies and develop comprehensive procedures for responding to cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Creating environments where sexual harassment is not tolerated would have a huge impact on the working conditions of the thousands of women employed within the garment sector.
However for this to be achieved, preventing sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be a priority issue in discussions. CARE continues to focus on supporting women – as well as engaging with retailers and supporting factory managers – to ensure women’s voices are heard and they are valued at work.