From post-World War II Japan to late 20th-century China, low-end manufacturing has driven early industrialization efforts in many developing nations. In the early 1990s, Cambodia emerged on the global scene as a major garment manufacturer and exporter, aided by a young, inexpensive workforce, favorable investment policies and preferential access to Western markets. The surge in Cambodia's garment industry, combined with two decades of relative political stability and economic liberalization, helped the country rebound from decades of war to build one of the region's fastest-growing economies. But Cambodia has not moved past its reliance on the garment industry, which supplied 70-80 percent of its export revenue over the past decade and employed a large portion of its workforce. And over time, the sector has fallen victim to the country's many political and structural challenges.
A Highly Political Industry
Given the country's heavy dependence on a single industry, it is perhaps unsurprising that labor issues are a hot-button topic in Cambodian politics. The country's high level of unionization and the simmering enmity between its ruling and opposition parties adds fuel to the debate. After elections in 2013 revealed the unprecedented strength of the opposition, labor took center stage in Cambodian politics. Disputes over wages, working conditions and the role of unions became highly politicized, and parties on each side of the political divide tried to turn the issues to their advantage. The opposition party and its affiliated trade unions took the matter far beyond securing rights and improving pay for workers, staging massive strikes across the country. As elections in 2017 and 2018 approach and Cambodia's political scene remains largely unsettled, opposition parties will likely keep leveraging labor.
Labor is more than just a talking point for the opposition, which has managed to secure significant policy changes with the wave of unrest it unleashed. Over the past three years, repeated wage hikes have more than doubled pay for garment manufacturing jobs in Cambodia to $140 a month, putting the country on par with — or above — many of its regional competitors, including Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Now, opposition parties and unions are demanding that the rate increase to $177 per month. As other countries in the region, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, pursue international trade more aggressively, Cambodia's climbing manufacturing wages will continue to erode its competitive edge in the years to come.
A Tall Order
The problem for Cambodia is that wages in its garment industry rose too high, too quickly, at a time when the country is ill prepared to move up the manufacturing value chain or to diversify its economy. Of the major garment exporters worldwide, Cambodia is among the most dependent on textile and clothing for export revenue, employment and investment, second only to Bangladesh. Though both countries suffer similar deficiencies in infrastructure and labor productivity, Cambodia's industrial capacity is still well below that of Bangladesh and largely operates at the downstream end of the industrial chain. Cambodia's garment industry, moreover, is heavily concentrated around the capital city of Phnom Penh. And unlike Bangladesh, where local entrepreneurs control much of the industrial chain, Cambodia's garment factories are mostly owned by foreign brands, making the industry highly vulnerable to external shifts.
Many East Asian economies — for instance, those of Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and, more recently, China and Vietnam — have managed to transition up the value chain. But the task is easier said than done. Even for China's economy, the process has been mostly reactive, peppered with inconsistencies and setbacks, and could take another decade to complete. Cambodia has even more hurdles to overcome to transform its economy, including severe infrastructural deficiencies outside its main manufacturing centers, an unskilled labor pool, and high electricity and energy costs. Nonetheless, if Phnom Penh addresses these challenges, Cambodia's small economy, young labor force and relatively amiable relations with major regional economies such as China and Japan could work in its favor.
Over the past two years, investment from China and Japan has enabled Cambodia to broaden its economic activities to construction, service and light manufacturing (auto parts and electronics), despite an overall slowdown in investment. Though these diversification efforts have relieved some of the most pressing concerns over Cambodia's economy, political uncertainty and structural shortcomings will continue to test the country's competitiveness.