EU visit: Workers, unions and politicians express EBA fears

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Garment workers return home. Hong Menea

Workers, union leaders and politicians have expressed fear over the consequences of losing access to the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement – something analysts have described as “manageable”.

A team from the European Commission and European External Action Service is currently in Cambodia for talks as part of the official withdrawal process.

Meanwhile, three former politicians with the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) released a statement on Wednesday calling on the EU to keep EBA for Cambodia.

Ou Chanrath, Chiv Kata and Kang Kimhak also requested the leaders of all political parties to soften their stance and find a solution for the country.

Politicians aside, average Cambodians are also very concerned.

Take Soth Sophorng, who left her Svay Rieng hometown in 2011 to work in a garment factory in Phnom Penh.

Her job not only provided a livelihood for her and her family but enabled her to graduate last year from a private university, majoring in law.

Sophorng, who is now working at a hotel, said she was concerned that Cambodia could have its access to EBA withdrawn.

She said it would have unfavourable consequences for hundreds of thousands of garment workers, and perhaps even indirectly affect her current job.

“I have heard about EBA but not the latest developments. I think if we have EBA, more investors will come to our country. If EBA is taken away, factories may close their doors, leaving many workers without jobs,” she said.

Cambodia received access to EBA in 2003. But in February, after almost 17 years, the European Commission launched the official procedure which could lead to a whole or partial withdrawal. It cited human and labour rights violations, and a backsliding of democracy.

Union leaders said the loss of EBA access would not only affect workers in the garment industry, which exports its products to the EU’s single market, but also have indirect consequences.

Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said development in Cambodia was a consequence of EBA, which had attracted investors in the garment and footwear industries.

Should EBA access be withdrawn, he said Cambodia would have to pay full tariffs on all products exported to the 28-member EU.

This would make investors think twice about coming to Cambodia as they compared the Kingdom with countries that had EBA access.

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The loss of EBA would not only affect the one million workers employed in garment sector but also their families, said Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions president Yang Sophorn. POST STAFF

In the end, they would almost certainly move their businesses elsewhere, he said.

“We all are in this industry – both investors and workers. We do not want to see Cambodia lose its EBA access. We want to see Cambodia continue to grow. We want to see diversified job opportunities for the people,” Sina said.

“Currently, there are nearly one million workers. [The loss of EBA] would not only affect them but their families too, because workers are often the main source of income for these families,” said Yang Sophorn,president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU).

She said should EBA access be lost, workers without jobs who had moved to Phnom Penh to work in factories would return to their hometowns only to face further financial problems.

This situation, she said, could force them to migrate abroad for work.

The CUMW’s Sina said the EU should seriously consider keeping Cambodia’s access to EBA for the sake of its people.

He said he had seen the government’s efforts in responding positively to the EU’s requirements, such as dropping charges against unionists and making some changes to the Law on Trade Unions.

“For me, the EU should consider the responses of the government, such as improving freedom of assembly and freedom of unions, and the ceasing of the harassment of unionists like myself. I think the government is addressing these issues, so the EU should consider this.

“Politically, it needs time. For working conditions and labour rights, I think the government has improved the situation as required by the EU,” Sina said.

Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said he was confident the Kingdom’s garment industry was less likely to be part of any EBA withdrawal, considering the positive developments made over the past 20 years, both economically and socially.

“We are working to address points of concern that the EU perceives as setbacks to labour rights post-2016, and these are not really difficult to rectify."

“The [reaction to labour issues] would be positive, so talking about our industry being subject to EBA withdrawal is quite a speculation. It leads unnecessarily to investor and buyer concerns,” he said.

Economic analyst Chan Sophal said the Cambodian economy would be negatively affected but not devastated by the loss of EBA.

“The consequences would be manageable if the Cambodian government implements reform measures effectively."

“More foreign direct investment [FDI] may be shifted from China due to the effects of a trade war. With strong growth fuelled by Chinese capital among others, more jobs will be created and we will see the vibrancy in the economy,” he said.

The European delegation is in Cambodia until Monday.