Past Event

Cambodian Economics: Quota Systems & a Global Market

In a piece entitled Women are Diamonds: A Brilliant Future for Cambodia Means Creating Female Employment Now, author and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore explores the dwindling employment opportunities for young Cambodian women. She writes, “While education may be a way to move the country forward, and volunteerism an excellent means to bolster education with hands-on skills, the fact remains that Cambodia’s job opportunities are few and far between. A full 40 percent of the country is in poverty, and most Cambodians survive on only a dollar a day.”

Moore gives the reader background on Cambodia’s economy: “In recent years, Cambodian industry – most natural resources save rice were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime – had begun to edge away from agriculture toward garment export. Women’s long association with textiles made them the go-to labor force in the emerging market. This sudden increase in women’s economic opportunities had begun to shift, however slightly, the assumption that women were valueless.”

A good chunk of the goods produced in Cambodian garment factories are imported to America, and a global quota system called Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA) in place from 1974-2005 put limits on how many garments a county could export. Many saw this agreement as a way to ensure that all developing countries were able to fairly compete in the sale of their textile goods, without substandard labor practices dictating costs.

Moore writes, “This allowed the emerging market to operate in an environment not of sweatshop economics, but based on regulated wages, high-end fabrics and relatively decent labor practices. The impoverished nation essentially created a niche market in premium goods – turning, some said at the time, the usually negative affects of globalism on its ear.”  Under MFA, more and more women, Moore contends, were able to gain independence from abusive home lives and demand educational opportunities for their daughters by way of the financial ground they achieved.

When the agreement was abolished in 2005, labor activists worldwide were concerned with how this shift would affect millions of international workers and, in particular, women, who made the bulk of this labor force. A report released by Christian Aid stated, “The losers under the new liberalization will undoubtedly be those countries and their workers who have until now been protected. Companies must not enter a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of labor standards in an effort to compete.”

Labor activists in America were concerned as well. Kimi Lee, director of the Los Angeles-based Garment Workers Center said, “Although it’s hard to know for sure, 80,000 job losses are predicted in the U.S. [from those inside the textile industry]… Because of [quotas], the MFA made large companies spread out their production. Once Bangladesh hit their 10,000th pair of pants, for example, you would have to go somewhere else to get your pants made. With quotas gone, the companies would be able to just find the country with the lowest wages to produce there. We can naturally assume that U.S. production will decrease as well.”

The International Labor Organization disagreed; a report they released the same year stated, “Most of Cambodia’s factories have retained the loyalty of major buyers around the world by appealing not just to their preference for low-cost production but also to their desire to outsource under decent working conditions.”

Anne Moore and others would argue that the numbers don’t add up. Moore writes,” Factory shut-downs (in Cambodia) intensified when the US economic crisis hit in September of 2008, decreasing orders and shuttering distributors almost immediately. Left in the place of these high-status jobs for women, however, are other ‘opportunities’. This year saw a rise of women entering the sex trade ‘as a result of the financial crisis,’ UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking announced in a July 20 report. The report tracked increases in the number of sex workers working in brothels, as well as those earning a living in the informal sex industry.”

Is there room for a quota system in a global market?  Do you think systems like the Multi-Fiber Agreement were sufficient in ensuring that women working in certain trades receive decent labor standards?  Should we have a responsibility in ensuring women around the globe have decent employment opportunities inclusive of fair labor practices? Aside from textile exports, what other visions of economic security do you envision helping the women of Cambodia? Should they be reliant on an industrial-capitalist model, even if labor standards are fair? What comparisons do you see with the employment crisis for women in Cambodia to women in the U.S.?

Suggested Resources

For more information, call 312.422.5580.