Social protection lessons from Cambodia’s garment workers

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  • 2012•02•16

    Alisa DiCaprio

    Social protection lessons from Cambodia’s garment workers

    Photo: Andy Teo

    Innovations in social protection systems design have moved forward quickly on the supply-side over the past decade. The same degree of creativity, however, has not been applied to the equally critical demand-side constraints to social protection. Without channels through which the demand for social protection can be expressed to the provider of such protection, even the most finely tuned system will not be sustainable in the long run.

    Yet system design has paid almost no attention to the challenges of promoting the types of political opportunity structures that can incorporate activism around social protection. This is an important oversight because social protection programming has become an established component of most foreign assistance aimed at poverty reduction.

    Facilitating demand can help well-designed programmes take root in the short run, and remain operational in the longer run. In a UNU-WIDER working paper published in December 2011, I used the case of Cambodia’s labour rights regime to illustrate how the political opportunity structure was adjusted to incorporate workers’ voices, and the potential for those channels to be used to promote other types of protection.

    The incorporation of design elements that open up political opportunity structures to allow the expression of demand is particularly critical when we recognize that social protection is, at its core, a government-driven redistributive programme. In the long run, the sustainability of even the most carefully conceived programmes will depend on the ability of recipients to demand them.

    One reason the demand-side of social protection is not at the forefront of programme design is linked to the opacity regarding exactly which institutions or norms are most appropriate to facilitate voice. The social protection situation in Cambodia offers some useful insights into this question.

    Among fragile states, Cambodia stands out in its achievement of a labour rights regime that is relatively well-enforced and solidly institutionalized, in contrast to relatively weak social protections more generally. The relatively rapid turnaround of this sector was the result of a historically unique conditional trade arrangement between Cambodia and the United States. The conditions of the arrangement required the establishment of institutions for enforcing and monitoring the working conditions of garment and apparel workers.

    By changing the environment in which social movements operate, the success of the labour rights regime has opened up political space for other groups to make claims on the rights afforded to them by the Cambodian constitution. Understanding the formal and informal activities that have opened this space can inform our understanding of how to create a sustainable social protection system. This allows us to see which institutions and norms were changed by the successful sector, and how they are being (or not being) used to promote rights in other sectors.

    Formally, the political opportunity structure was changed by introducing institutions that gave effect to the existing labour law. These institutions — including an arbitration council and the incorporation of workers into labour governance — were built specifically to address the garment and apparel sector. However, they have been increasingly accessed by workers in other sectors, and serve also as an example of what is possible.

    Informally, the success of labour rights transformed the limited awareness of labour rights among workers into a sense of entitlement around human rights. This is particularly important in the field of social protection where awareness without entitlement renders even the most open political opportunity structure useless.

    The increase in activism and the numbers of workers experienced in labour rights activism also introduces the possibility of social spillovers. As more workers are informed about their rights, and as they take this information with them to new factories, new sectors, and their families, the information spreads. In practice, social spillovers appear to remain limited, but their potential may be exploited.

    The adjustments the labour rights success made to the political opportunity structure are such that they can be used to facilitate social protection demand in other rights as well. There are three ways that social protection systems can incorporate the lessons of Cambodia.

    First, the demonstration effect of even a single successful sector can promote activism around other rights — quick visible wins still matter.

    Second, linking foreign consumers into social protection can be an important source of leverage — ethical or environmental standards could be one way to do this.

    Finally, the story we tell about the role of political opportunities underscores a more fundamental message about state–society relations in fragile states. Open and inclusive relations can be a key driver of functioning democratic systems, stability and poverty reduction. Thus, by prompting the creation of political spaces available to interest groups in fragile states, donors can amplify the positive impacts of foreign assistance in these areas. Supply-side constraints in social protection are critical, but solutions should also pay attention to sustainability.

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    This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of the UNU-WIDER WIDER Angle newsletter.