Cambodia Investment Review

Life and Building Safety (LABS) initiative launches platform for gender equality in Cambodia’s apparel and footwear sectors

Life and Building Safety (LABS) initiative launches platform for gender equality in Cambodia’s apparel and footwear sectors

Tom Starkey

Life and Building Safety (LABS) Initiative launched the Platform for Gender Equality in Apparel and Footwear in Cambodia (PGEAFC) yesterday, with a workshop organized jointly with the Garment Manufacturer’s Association of Cambodia (GMAC). 

The Platform will provide opportunities for partners to discuss and address key issues related to gender in Cambodia’s apparel, footwear, and garment sectors, such as pay gaps, leadership opportunities for women in the sector, and working conditions as well as providing a trusted, neutral space to discuss and exchange ideas, highlight significant opportunities, scale interventions and help accelerate gender-positive actions.

To read more about the official launch of LABS in Cambodia click here.

Progress on gender issues

Opening the workshop, Country Manager of LABS Foundation & IDH Transforming Markets, Mr. Am Emerald started by saying that progress has been made on gender issues.

“H.E. Samdech Hun Sen has spoken on the importance of women’s empowerment in entrepreneurship and this has been reflected in progressive policies, such as in the five-year garment manufacturing plan 2022 to 2027,” Emerald said.

“This workshop is about adding to those efforts to promote gender equality and address the current challenges we face when empowering women. Cambodia has been at the forefront of gender equality, but now we want to adopt a gender transformative approach, engage men and women from all levels together, as agents of change,” he added.

H.E Kuong Sorita, Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, agreed that it will take a commitment from all stakeholders.

“We need actors from the public and private sectors to come together to solve the problem. Women are the backbone of the economy, and supporting women directly contributes to economic growth in Cambodia and provide job opportunities for Cambodian people,” she said.

“This in particular is true in the garment sector, where women represent around 90 percent of the workforce. However, high-level positions are dominated by men which is not conducive to fair representation. Women’s potential can be harnessed when they are protected and supported, and Cambodia will benefit from efforts towards female empowerment in and out of the workplace,” she added.

The LABS Initiative launched in May 2022 and is designed to promote safer working conditions for factory workers in the apparel and footwear industry by assessing factories and providing a framework for their monitoring, mitigation, and remediation. 

The Initiative operates in all major hubs of Cambodia including Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu, and Takeo, and is expected to benefit approximately 206,000 workers in 2022, with the newly launched Platform bringing more private and public sector actors into the discussion.

Women at decision-making levels

The first-panel discussion of the day, held under the theme ‘Sharing the Experiences of Organizations Working on Gender Issues, was moderated by the Vice President of AmCham Ms. Kim Tol Tan, and featured guest speakers: 

  • Mrs. Chea Davy, Assistant Admin Manager at Yi Da Manufacturer 
  • Mr. Arron Goldman, Technical Officer & Deputy Program Manager at Better Factories Cambodia & ILO
  • Sao Kanharoat, Business Development Executive at Cambodian Garment Training Institute (CGTI)

Ms. Kanharoat said businesses must have a good gender balance and women at decision-making levels. 

“The garment sector is disproportionately represented by men when women make up the vast majority of workers, this means women’s income is also much smaller and their voice is not heard,” Ms. Kanharoat said.

“One gender does not always know the answer, and men also need to be involved in this discussion. Men also have to contribute and acknowledge wider issues, such as unpaid work that can burden women, which is taking place outside of the workplace but often still expected from them,” she added.

To read more about Bavet as an emerging manufacturing hub in Cambodia click here.

Mr. Goldman agreed that female empowerment is not just important in the workplace, but essential to reap the wider benefits on a larger scale.

“Our approach covers 4 key pillars, namely ending gender-based discrimination, developing understanding around the challenges women face balancing paid and unpaid work, making sure women have a voice and are represented while helping develop skills and leadership,” Mr. Goldman said.

“Developing in these areas is important on not only a business level but a societal level. It is promoting the development of life skills, it’s giving opportunity and women the choice to make their own decisions in society which has huge value on a societal level,” he added.

Investment in female empowerment

Speaking on behalf of the private sector, Mrs. Khoun Soklay, Senior Manager of Supplier Sustainability from Gap Inc., said that the investment in female empowerment makes business sense.

“Our Personal Achievement and Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program is designed to boost women and girls to reach their full potential and find their voices. P.A.C.E. is an innovative factory-based program, that positively impacts female garment workers by providing them with life and technical skills to help them advance in the workplace and their lives,” Mrs. Khoun Soklay said.

“We have been implementing the P.A.C.E. program in Cambodia since 2009 and our studies show that there is a 250 percent return on investment when implementing our program, with a marked increase in women’s workplace influence, work efficacy, retention, and overall productivity as a result,” she said.

To read more about workers-safety forums in Phnom Penh click here.

Mrs. Khoun Soklay commented that now, in partnership with the Ministry of Youth, Education & Sport, the P.A.C..E curriculum will be incorporated into all primary and secondary schools by 2023. 

“Challenges we face are still workers literacy levels, trainer turnover, the training schedule, attendance levels, and getting the private sector, such as factories, to buy in on the program,” she added.

The last speaker on the day, Country Director of CARE Cambodia, Mrs. Neou Sovattha said a particularly prevalent gender issue that disproportionately affects women is sexual harassment.

“The cost of sexual harassment is around 89 million USD per year or 0.52 percent of Cambodia’s GDP. This is a result of absenteeism, staff turnover, decreased presentism, and reduced productivity,” Mrs. Neou Sovattha said.

“Studies show that factories saw some 112,000 days where workers were absent due to sexual harassment. We also see around a 40 percent loss in productivity from victims of sexual harassment. Not only should sexual harassment be eradicated for the benefit of society, but the private sector should actively implement policies and practices to create a safe work environment which protects their employees whilst improving its productivity,” she added.

Empowerment is a multi-faceted challenge

Indeed, the LABS Initiative has highlighted the multifaceted benefits of addressing female empowerment in the garment sector, with benefits including improved worker safety, operational benefits, mitigated risks, improved reputation, and increased customer visibility.

The event wrapped up with a final panel discussion, with guest speakers:

  • Mrs. Sem Sreytouch, Business Engagement Manager at PACT
  • Mr. Hasso Anwer, Project Manager at GIZ Fabric Cambodia
  • Mrs. Meas Molika, Co-Founder & Group CEO at iCare Benefits Group

All agreed that female empowerment is a multi-faceted challenge that will take efforts from all stakeholders, including actors in the public and private sectors. 

Related Articles