Reference ID: 07PHNOMPENH1463
Created: 2007-12-03 08:46
Released: 2011-08-30 01:44
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Origin: Embassy Phnom Penh
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #1463/01 3370846
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 030846Z DEC 07
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING PRIORITY 2502
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 0120
RUEHHM/AMCONSUL HO CHI MINH PRIORITY 0125
RUEHHK/AMCONSUL HONG KONG PRIORITY 0622
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY 0701
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHRC/DEPT OF AGRICULTURE USD FAS WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHMFIUU/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 PHNOM PENH 001463
STATE FOR EAP/MLS, H, DRL/ILCSR--MITTELHAUSER,
EEB/TPP/ABT--CLEMENTS, EEB/ESC/IEC/ENR, OES--SALZBERG, AND
G/TIP--LAGON AND NEUMANN
BANGKOK FOR USAID--KISSINGER, FCS--BACHER, FAS--MEYER
HANOI FOR FAS--WADE AND RALPH, FCS--NAY
HO CHI MINH CITY FOR FCS--MARCHAK AND LE
AGRICULTURE FOR FAS--RIKER
LABOR FOR ILAB--LI
COMMERCE FOR ITA/OTEXA--D'ANDREA, ITA/MAC--MIKALIS
TREASURY FOR INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS--WALSH AND CHUN
STATE PLEASE PASS TO US TRADE REPRESENTATIVE FOR BISBEE AND WEISEL
STATE PLEASE PASS TO US TRADE AND DEVELOPMENT AGENCY FOR WINKATES
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ETRD PREL ELAB KTEX PHUM KWMN CB
SUBJECT: ECONOMICS, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND GOVERNMENT REFORM TOP
SENATOR CANTWELL'S CAMBODIA AGENDA
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1. (SBU) Summary: Building the political and economic foundation for economic growth and development was the key theme of a November 25-29 visit by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA). Cantwell, a member of the Senate's Finance and Energy Committees, brought her private sector experience to bear in her conversations with government officials, civil society leaders, and businesspeople. Foreign investors care about human rights, trafficking in persons, and corruption in the countries where they invest, she told a receptive Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Economic and business leaders described Cambodia's macroeconomic success and effots to reform public finances. They thanked the Senator for her co-sponsorship of the TRADE Act, describing the precariousness of the garment industry and explaining that the excellent working conditions in Cambodia's garment factories were not enough to guarantee the survival of the industry. The Senator and her delegation also visited with Washington State NGOs working in health, education, trafficking in persons, and cultural preservation; and visited a demining site. With on-the-ground experience in Cambodia to complement her relatively large number of Cambodian-American constituents, Post has high hopes that Cantwell will promote increased U.S.-Cambodian ties in her home state and in the nation's capital. End Summary.
Cantwell Links Political Freedoms, Foreign Investment
2. (SBU) Political freedoms and reforms are critical in attracting investment and economic growth, Cantwell emphasized in a meeting with Interior Minister Sar Kheng. Some Washington State firms refused to do business in China until it undertook economic and political reforms, and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is currently stalled in Congress due to concerns about killings of labor leaders there, she said. Turning to Cambodia, Cantwell praised the Minister for his personal focus on trafficking in persons issues, which remains a critical U.S. concern, and noted that both the U.S. government and U.S. investors felt that Cambodia must make additional progress in human rights, rule of law and anti-corruption efforts. While she proudly co-sponsors the TRADE Act, proposed legislation that would eliminate tariffs on apparel from Cambodia and 14 other least developed countries, the Senator asserted that the Act is unlikely to pass Congress unless the Cambodian government is perceived as operating transparently. The Senator specifically encouraged the Cambodian government to pass the long-stalled anti-corruption law, and to ensure that future oil and gas revenues were handled transparently.
3. (SBU) The Interior Minister accepted the Senator's link between political reform and economic growth, saying "Strengthening the rule of law is the gateway to development." Sar Kheng praised areas of past U.S.-Cambodian cooperation, including counterterrorism and labor, and acknowledged that human rights and rule of law warranted more attention. The government has undertaken efforts to decentralize and reform itself, he said, but the process has been difficult, with the various line ministries displaying varying attitudes towards that effort. The Minister expressed anxiety over the State Department's next tier ranking of Cambodia's trafficking in persons efforts, saying that although bilateral cooperation remained strong, he still could not predict how the State Department will rate Cambodia. Sar Kheng also acknowledged that drafting and passing a sound anti-corruption law was important, but said
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that ensuring that the law would be properly implemented was equally important.
4. (U) Senator Cantwell emphasized her desire to not only strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia, but also specifically between her home state and Cambodia. Washington State has the third largest Cambodian population in the U.S. and is home to the Gates Foundation, World Vision, and PATH (a health NGO)--all of which are active in Cambodia. In addition, Washington State has some of the cheapest electricity in the country because 72% of its electrical supply comes from hydropower. Cantwell suggested that some Washington State hydropower firms may be interested in investing in energy-starved Cambodia. Sar Kheng welcomed the humanitarian and health assistance from Washington State, and was particularly eager to get Washington expertise in developing hydropower.
Macroeconomic Growth Strong, Government Revenues Rising
5. (U) During a lunch with economics and business experts, IMF Resident Representative John Nelmes summarized Cambodia's overall economic good health, comparing the nation's double-digit growth rate to recent estimates of 2% growth in the U.S. Cambodia's macroeconomic policy was sound and consistent, he said. However, with a highly dollarized economy, Cambodia essentially has no monetary policy of its own and instead adopts U.S. monetary policy. Although this is stable, it is geared toward the slow-growing U.S. economy rather than the rapidly expanding Cambodian one, Nelmes noted. (Note: In other forums, Nelmes has promoted the medium-term de-dollarization of the Cambodian economy. End Note.) Brett Sciaroni, a prominent lawyer and head of the American-Cambodian Business Association, cited legal reforms and a track record of political stability as increasing investor interest and helping to spur economic growth. Sciaroni proudly cited next week's inauguration of a bottling plant owned by U.S. firm Crown Holdings, the second largest can producer in the world, as evidence of increased interest among multinational corporations. Sciaroni also praised U.S. efforts to promote commercial and legal reforms via the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.
6. (U) Nelmes highlighted Cambodia's efforts to improve its public financial management, and Aun Porn Moniroth, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Economics and Finance, explained that Cambodia is in the second stage of a three-stage public financial management reform effort. The government first focused on increasing revenue collection, a very successful effort in which targets were exceeded by 10-20% each year and government arrears of USD 200 million were nearly eliminated. Nelmes noted that customs duties were growing faster than imports--a signal that Cambodia is making progress in curbing the smuggling of goods and a very positive sign in a country where more than half of the government revenue comes from customs. The current focus, according to Moniroth, is on strengthening the procurement capability and accountability within the line ministries. Seven ministries--including the Ministries of Health, Education, Agriculture and Rural Development--have begun pilots of this program this year. Moniroth hopes that the government will complete the third phase--ensuring that financial resources are matched to government priorities--by 2015 so that the government can meet a pledge of creating an international-standard financial management system by that date.
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Cambodia's Labor Standards Positive, But No Silver Bullet
7. (U) Attention next turned to the intertwined issues of the garment industry and labor. Former Cambodian Ambassador to the U.S. Roland Eng and representatives from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) described how the survival of Cambodia's garment industry remains perilous, even in the face of Cambodia's well-deserved reputation for good working conditions. Excessive illegal strikes, which many believe stem from the high number of factory-level unions, cause production delays and increase costs. Unlike in the U.S. and most industrialized countries, the average Cambodian garment factory has 2-3 unions competing to represent the same workers and, according to GMAC Secretary General Ken Loo, some factories have five or more unions. The multiplicity of unions breeds harassment and intimidation as well as worker unrest. Econoff detailed the embassy's efforts to address this issue by encouraging government efforts to certify one union per factory as "most representative." In line with international labor standards, only the most representative union has the right to engage in collective bargaining. Other unions can be active at factories, though typically worker interest tends to unite behind the more popular, and now more powerful, union, further facilitating collective bargaining.
8. (U) Both ILO and GMAC representatives agreed that Cambodia's high labor standards have given them some edge in the competitive apparel market. Loo noted that Disney removed Cambodia from a blacklist of garment producers after the Better Factories Cambodia factory monitoring program was implemented, and ILO representative Tuomo Poutiainen said that Cambodia's labor reputation anchors the presence of a few retailers, such as the Gap and Nike, in Cambodia. Nonetheless, all present agreed that the labor standards are only one of many factors buyers use when deciding where to source orders. Price, quality, and delivery time are likely even more important than working conditions. Loo noted that while Cambodia's garment industry is set to grow by 13% this year, the garment industry in Bangladesh--renowned for poor working conditions and large-scale strikes--was growing by 25%, with China and Vietnam also growing by 20% or more. Loo also detailed an emerging practice known as "internet reverse bidding" where suppliers compete on-line at an appointed time in hopes of securing a garment contract. This practice encourages further cuts in already low prices paid for garment production and often precludes working conditions from being considered in the bidding process.
9. (U) Lack of vertical integration also hampers the garment industry's competitiveness. Ken Loo explained that Cambodia's garment industry is purely a "cut and sew" operation, with fabric, zippers, buttons, and other inputs imported from overseas. China, however, is a "one stop shop" where fabric and necessities are produced in the same region as the factories, allowing fast transport and easy re-ordering. While Loo has tried to entice fabric manufacturers to produce in Cambodia, they balk at Cambodia's high electricity prices.
Tariff-Free Access or Bust...Literally
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10. (SBU) Given these structural impediments, tariff-free access to the U.S. is critical to the survival of the garment industry, the participants noted, thanking Senator Cantwell for her co-sponsorship of the TRADE Act. Cambodia now pays 15 to 33% tariffs on the goods it exports to the U.S., Ken Loo said, meaning that in total dollar terms, Cambodia pays more in tariffs to the U.S. than does France. Economist Sok Hach stated that his think tank has estimated that if U.S. tariffs on garments were eliminated, the number of garment factories in Cambodia would increase by 30%, creating 100,000 new jobs and causing wages to rise. Ambassador Eng painted a somber picture of one potential outcome of a garment industry collapse or contraction. Eng cited a survey which showed that 93% of garment factory workers--most of whom are young, rural women--did not want to return to rural areas. "If their jobs were taken away, how would these poorly-educated, low skilled women employ themselves in the city?," Eng asked, and then hinted that many would turn to prostitution and potentially reverse Cambodia's progress in battling HIV and trafficking in persons.
11. (SBU) It would have been hard to identify a Senator more likely to find common cause with Cambodians than Senator Cantwell. With her working class background and interest in energy issues, representing a state filled with Cambodian-Americans and NGOs working in Cambodia, Cantwell found multiple avenues for connections with Cambodian officials, civil society, and business. Offline, the Senator and her staff shared ideas with Emboffs designed to further increase ties between Cambodia and Washington State, including encouraging a Washington State University agricultural outreach program to expand into Cambodia, eliminating tariffs on outdoor garments--which are not produced in the U.S.--so that Cambodian factories could supply Washington companies such as REI, and even promoting the use of Kampot pepper in high-end Washington State restaurants. Post hopes that Cantwell will return to Washington State and Washington, D.C. as an effective ambassador for U.S.-Cambodian relations. While many Americans' perceptions of Cambodia remain stuck in the 1970s, Cantwell's experiences underline the great strides the country is making in moving into the twenty-first century.