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Pinning Hope On Fair Labor Standards

Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page A19

Sok Hong wants to believe that Cambodia's reputation for decent factory labor conditions will be enough to protect his garment business from competitors across the South China Sea. But he has spent enough time with the U.S. clothing labels that keep his shop running to know that one factor alone will probably determine whether his business can survive.

"They just care about the price. If you have a cheaper price, they will buy from you," said Sok, managing director of the family-owned Kong Hong Garment Co., which exports as many as 30,000 pairs of blue jeans per month to the United States, nearly three-fourths to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "We don't have child labor at this factory. . . . [But] the buyer doesn't care how good you are."

About This Report

Staff writer Paul Blustein wrote and reported from Honduras and Washington. Staff writer Peter S. Goodman wrote and reported from Sri Lanka, Cambodia and China.

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Five years have passed since Cambodia and the United States signed a trade deal that remains a watershed. Factories here gained duty-free access to the U.S. market in exchange for submitting to inspections from the International Labour Organization, a watchdog group. The volume of clothing Cambodia could ship was pegged directly to improvements in labor conditions.

The deal has been widely hailed as a success, with Cambodia gaining jobs and investment along with better working conditions. But that arrangement will end in January, along with the global textile quotas, and Cambodia's producers will begin paying the same customs duties as everyone else.

Already, buyers are shifting orders to China.

"I'm really worried," Sok said, as he walked a shop floor occupied by 600 workers, the din of sewing machines echoing through muggy air as seamstresses hunched over their tables. "We can't compete against China, no way. I don't want to hurt these workers, but if I have no choice, I will close down the factory."

In preparing for the world after quotas, countries hope to find something that distinguishes them from China. Sri Lanka, for example, hopes its factories can establish an expertise in women's lingerie and manufacturing for labels like Victoria's Secret. Though Cambodia may sell itself on its credentials as a socially responsible producer, industry executives and government officials there express little confidence that their plants can endure without some form of special access to the U.S. market.

Without duty-free access to the United States, "we cannot convince the buyer to come here," said Mashiur Rahman, general manager of Universal Apparel (Cambodia) Co., which makes baseball caps and sweaters for U.S. brands including Banana Republic and the Gap in its six-story factory.

Deeply impoverished and still scarred by the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and more than two decades of war, Cambodia is dependent on garments for 98 percent of its exports, two-thirds of which go to the United States, according to government figures. About 230,000 of the country's 13 million people work in the garment trade.

Beyond the economic disaster that could unfold if factories shut down, the demise of the industry would undermine the notion that poor countries can focus on improving labor standards while still attracting foreign investment and business, Cambodian officials argue.

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