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UN Fears Failure of Cambodian Garment Industry Could Drive Women into Sex Trade

Cambodia's garment industry is in trouble as it faces stiff international competition. Special trade quotas and privileged access to the United States have expired. And as a member of the World Trade Organization, Cambodia also must open its markets to imports. Thousands of Cambodian women have lost their jobs and the United Nations is concerned many of them will be forced into prostitution.

Cambodia's fledgling garment industry grew the past five years under a trade agreement with the United States giving it special market access. The deal linked exports to labor conditions. In a short time, Cambodia developed a clean and safe garment industry with more than 265,000 workers - 85 percent of them women.

But that quota agreement ended December 31 as part of global moves to liberalize textile markets. Cambodia also faces stiffer international competition having joined the World Trade Organization in September.

Factories here are closing rapidly and putting thousands of women out of work.

The United Nations is warning that many of these women are at risk of being forced into making a living in the sex trade.

Most of these women come from rural communities and take factory jobs to support their families at home. On average, they send back 65 percent of their salaries, which average $45 a month.

The United Nations is urging the Cambodian government to support these women by offering alternative employment and training.

The Secretary General of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, Ken Loo, says government action is essential.

"Firstly we need to maintain the labor compliance image that we have developed over the last four or five years," he said. "But secondly, and as important, we need to deal with the fundamental issues of the high cost of doing business in Cambodia."

Twenty factories closed or suspended operations in 2004. If operating costs are not cut in half over the next year, Mr. Loo says Cambodia can expect to lose up to 80,000 jobs by 2006.

Cambodia is asking international donors to help with the retraining - acknowledging its current job market will not be able to absorb even half the women finding themselves unemployed in the coming year.