Friday, January 18, 2008

Buy Cambodian

When I'm on the stationary bike at the gym, I like to listen to the podcast of NPR's This American Life. A recent episode titled "David and Goliath" discussed the textile industry in Cambodia.

Now, the stereotypical image this topic conjures in one's mind (or at least my mind) is of sweatshops, child labor, hazardous working conditions. In fact, I own a sweater with the "Made in Cambodia" label, and ever since I bought it I've felt guilty for doing so. But not any more.

It turns out that Cambodia's garment industry, the country's largest and creator of the vast majority of its exports, is among the most progressive in the developing world when it comes to workers' rights. We're talking more than a month paid vacation, three months maternity leave, outlawed child labor...the list goes on. Having traveled to Cambodia and seen the living conditions of most of the people there, this strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

From what I can gather, the success of the garment sector in Cambodia, both in terms of output and ethics, can be linked to two trade deals. First is the Mutli Fibre Agreement, established in 1974 to place quotas on the amount of textile exports developing countries could send to the developed world. While this hurt manufacturing powerhouses like China, the effect on smaller, poorer nations was beneficial. For example, because the U.S. could no longer look to just one or two Chinas for its cheap textile imports, it had to branch out and start importing from the Cambodias of the world. In other words, by limiting the output of larger developing nations, the MFA opened the door to increased output from smaller ones.

Second, in 1999, the U.S. enacted a bilateral trade deal with Cambodia that gave that country's garment producers greater access to U.S. markets in return for labor reforms. Amazingly, these groundbreaking reforms actually stuck, and as a result, big-name retailers such as Gap and Levi's started contracting with the new worker-friendly Cambodian factories in order to enhance their reputations among conscientious consumers.

So it sounds like an uplifting story, right? One of the few to come out of a struggling developing nation's manufacturing sector. Well, bridle that optimism. The MFA expired at the beginning of 2005, setting the stage for China to begin out-competing most other Asian garment producers. But even more ominous for Cambodia, the special access deals it's enjoyed with the U.S. are also in the process of expiring.

Without these trade protections, the future is grim for Cambodia's garment industry and its unique labor conditions. All materials used in the production of clothing, from fabric to buttons to zippers, are imported from other countries. This, combined with the higher costs of maintaining ethical labor standards, puts Cambodian manufacturers at a severe disadvantage compared to those of other developing nations. Their hope is that consumer gravitation toward fair-labor practices will continue to increase, and that other major retailers will turn to Cambodia for this reason. The alternative, the collapse of this vulnerable country's biggest industry, would be disastrous.

So needless to say, after hearing this piece, I have a strong urge to give away all my clothes and head to the Gap to replace everything with Cambodian-made, albeit overpriced, apparel. Not to mention I'm feeling a lot better about that sweater. Thanks, Ira Glass.

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