May 16, 2005

More on Cambodia

The other day I highlighted the Cambodian garment industry as an instance where free trade and labor standards came together to produce somewhat happy results. It's still unclear, though, whether this mini-success can be replicated anywhere else. To that end, Edward Gresser of PPI—who has done some work with the Cambodian embassy since leaving the USTR—emails in with some relevant thoughts on the subject:
On the positive side, the agreement has been a commercial success for Cambodia in ways that we didn't predict six years ago. The Cambodians got extra market access via a larger quota as expected. Over the long run, though, a more important benefit seems to be that the country has become more attractive to retail industry buyers because of the brand-image value of high labor standard guarantees. This advantage seems to have overpowered Cambodia's disadvantages for retail buyers - high crime rates, corruption, relatively weak infrastructure - & seems likely to continue doing so for a while, especially since the Bush Administration has reimposed quotas on China.

[… But] The ILO program has limits. Cambodia has about 200 or so garment factories & 240,000 garment workers - apparently small enough numbers that the ILO can manage the inspections. Bigger countries considering similar programs might run into manpower problems. Meanwhile the Bush Administration has been continually trying to cut our own international-labor assistance programs, which might make up some of the deficit were the world ever to consider adopt a big version of the Cambodia program.

Also, of course, the program focuses only on export workers. These can be pretty fortunate people, at least by local standards. In the Cambodian case, the minimum wage for a garment worker is roughly $540 a year, in a country where per capita income is $300 or so. The country also has ten million subsistence farmers and possibly as many as 100,000 prostitutes; both presumably have tougher and/or more deprived lives than the garment workers, but get little help or attention. A weakness in the anti-sweatshop movement, I think, is the concentration on enforcement and sanctions as opposed to incentives - had this been the vehicle for Cambodia policy, I think the results would have been much less heartening.
Interesting stuff—especially the bits about cuts to international-labor assistance programs, and the use of incentives rather than enforcement to promote labor standards. He also notes that, now that the quotas have been lifted, Cambodia's about to be screwed by our high import tariffs on cheap, mass-market clothing. At any rate, Democracy Arsenal's Suzanne Nossel keeps saying that this is the sort of thing progressives should be thinking seriously about. On a political level, I doubt that worrying about labor standards in Cambodia is ever going to win anyone an election anywhere, but it's important all the same.
-- Brad Plumer 5:15 PM || ||