From its start, the programme that became Better Factories Cambodia put pressure on garment factories, and especially in the early days, factory managers were not enthusiastic about the prospect of audits, if not outright uncooperative.
Despite the differences, the programme has always maintained a close relationship with the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, says its secretary general Ken Loo. The assessments were a shock to the industry, as none of the other manufacturing destinations required such a high standard of compliance from factories.
“It was always going to be a burden,” Loo said. “It’s still a burden, but over the years, we’ve found ways to create value for the users.” Loo recalls that in the first years, the programme was a pure auditing scheme established at the requirement of the U.S. Department of Labor. Then around 2004 and 2005, GMAC reached the same conclusion that Better Factories Cambodia had: assessments are pointless unless the factories have direction on what to do to improve. “After [factories] can identify what’s wrong, it helps the factory improve.”
With that in mind, Loo and the GMAC members became integral to developing training for factories, injecting the industry perspective into Better Factories’ programme creation. Together with Better Factories, GMAC developed an introductory scheme for new investors in order to introduce them to the rules and policies surrounding the garment industry in Cambodia.
“It very quickly acclimatizes new investors to the local regulations,” he said. “Otherwise new investors would take a lot longer or do not care about the local regulations.”
This programme helped factories improve their compliance scores quickly — Loo noted that managers often err in terms of following Cambodian policy in the first three years of their investment, but after that learning curve, it becomes clear which factories were adjusting and which have serious problems.
The child labour remediation programme was one of the most successful collaborations in Loo’s eyes, and it has also reduced the amount of child labour cases found in Cambodia — a shared success for factories and Better Factories Cambodia.
There have been tangible results for factories as well. Loo notes that some brands have said the programme is part of their reason for sourcing from Cambodia, but one major label based its decision to return to Cambodia specifically on the country’s participation in Better Factories Cambodia.
“At GMAC we continue to work with Better Factories Cambodia on certain areas of communication, highlighting areas of concern of our members,” he said. “I feel we have a very good working relationship now.”
Collaboration with Better Factories has not always been ideal or convenient for factories, and Loo notes it has varied throughout the years of the programme’s existence. But in the end, there are clear results from the partnership, and factories are using their reports to profit from their compliance achievements or work towards improvement.