Ben Fleming,’05, and Kassi Tallent,’06, Research Cambodian Garment Industry
AUSTIN, Texas – In March, two UT Law students traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to research how the recent elimination of quotas in the global garment industry has impacted labor conditions in Cambodia. Ben Fleming, ’05, and Kassi Tallent, ’06, interviewed dozens of people involved in the Cambodian garment industry during their investigative mission, which was undertaken as part of the Law School’s new Transnational Worker Rights Clinic.
“This trip provided a rare opportunity for us as students to observe the impact of international trade regimes on developing nations, and to participate in formulating responses to the difficulties those nations are encountering as they attempt to close the global development gap,” Tallent said.
Garments account for 90 percent of Cambodia’s exports, and the industry directly or indirectly financially supports 20 percent of all Cambodians, said UT Law Professor Sarah Cleveland, an instructor for the clinic, which is funded by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation. “The question for both Cambodia, and the global community, is how to preserve those jobs while simultaneously improving working conditions,” explained Cleveland, who traveled with the clinic students during spring break.
In 1999, with the help of the U.S. government and the International Labor Organization (ILO), Cambodia established an extensive factory monitoring program to ensure that export apparel is produced under socially acceptable working conditions. The import quotas that supported the program were eliminated in January 2005, however. The primary purpose of the students’ trip was to investigate whether Cambodia will be able to maintain its support for high labor standards in the face of new competition from garment giants such as China and India.
Over a period of 10 days, the students interviewed workers, government officials, and representatives of unions, employers, nonprofit organizations, and the ILO about the effectiveness of the monitoring program, changes in the industry and Cambodia’s commitment to improved working conditions. Their findings will be compiled in a report this summer for the Worker Rights Consortium, a U.S. nonprofit that monitors labor standards in the production of collegiate apparel.
“Cambodia has a young, but vibrant, labor movement, a credible and legitimate monitoring process, and at least a superficial commitment to labor rights throughout the industry,” Fleming concluded from his research. “However, Cambodia must address problems such as widespread governmental corruption, poor infrastructure, and rising tension in industrial relations in order to be relevant in a market now dominated by China. Nevertheless, there is reason, at least in the short term, to be optimistic,” he said.
The Transnational Worker Rights Clinic, taught by UT Law faculty Bill Beardall and Sarah Cleveland, was created to help law students draw connections between the human rights conditions confronting both immigrant workers in the United States and workers abroad. Students represent immigrant workers in Austin in claims to recover unpaid wages while also completing a significant international labor rights project.
Transnational Worker Rights Clinic: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/clinics/transnational/
Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice: http://www.utexas.edu/law/academics/centers/humanrights/