AT THE Gladpeer Garments Factory outside Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, seamstresses, dyers and embroiderers huddle over rows of work stations. It is a hard slog.
But at least they can count on labour representatives to ensure they get a proper break. About four-fifths of the factory’s 4,800 employees belong to a union, reports Albert Tan, the general manager. Many in his position distrust organised labour. Mr Tan sounds positively proud. So is H&M, a giant Swedish fashion chain that is Gladpeer’s biggest customer. Like other Western brands that cater to increasingly ethical consumers, the Swedes are therefore nervously watching Cambodia’s autocratic government squeeze workers ahead of a general election next year.
With annual revenues of $5bn, the Cambodian apparel industry is dwarfed by those of Bangladesh or Vietnam. But it has been growing fast. In a country of 16m, it already employs around 700,000 people and accounts for four-fifths of exports.