Clean Clothes Campaign calls upon ILO Better Work brands to ensure its critics will not be silenced

Cambodian labour rights organisation Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) is under increasing threat since it released a research report on 4 June. The report focused on the effectiveness of processes in the International Labour Organisation’s Better Factories Cambodia (ILO-BFC) programme in which brands like H&M, Inditex, C&A, and Nike participate. It addresses specifically employer-imposed barriers to freedom of association. Though at times critical, the report is certainly not an attack against the BFC or the ILO but meant as a critical evaluation that can be used to improve the BFC’s mechanisms and processes.

Prior to publication of the report, ILO-BFC was consulted several times about the findings of the field research and the conclusions and recommendations in the report. ILO-BFC staff also attended the launch event that was organized in Phnom Penh, which was attended by 41 stakeholders in total, including trade union representatives and brand representatives.

ILO-BFC have conveyed to the authors of the report that there are no concerns from their side, and that they believe that the report gave valuable recommendations for the Better Work programme as a whole, and that they respect and value organisations working on this topic. It is our understanding that ILO-BFC value the importance of civil society organisations critically evaluating their programmes, and challenging them to improve, including in the public domain.

Publicly available reports from the most recent International Labour Conference in Geneva indicate that the ILO is well aware of the severe issues workers and trade unions face regarding freedom of association in Cambodia. Direct outreach to several Better Work member brands also confirms that brands believe an active and critical civil society, including organisations like CENTRAL in Cambodia’s garment sector, is a positive factor and help enable compliance with international human rights standards. 

The Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), one of the trade unions involved with the research report, issued a statement on June 25th in which they state that the report gives an accurate representation of the situation of garment workers. In fact, they even state that “the report underestimates the violations of [the right to] freedom of association which currently occur”.

However, pro-government unions have now started a coordinated effort to convince the Cambodian Ministry of Interior to start an investigation into CENTRAL’s operations and finances, accusing CENTRAL of ‘illegal activities’ and referring to the report’s findings as ‘false’ and ‘harmful for Cambodia’s economy’. It is clear that the report on ILO-BFC is being misused as an excuse to undermine and attack CENTRAL, and to further restrict the space of civil society organisations to exercise their right to freedom of speech, which is an enabling right, and essential for exercising the right to freedom of association.

“It is crucial that all Better Work member brands participating in its Cambodia programmes publicly distance themselves from these accusations and make it clear to the Cambodian government that a report about the effectiveness of certain ILO-BFC processes related to freedom of association is welcomed, and that organisations like CENTRAL should not be censored, let alone face threats of suspension, for putting out a mildly critical report”, said Ineke Zeldenrust from Clean Clothes Campaign.

Civic space is under immense pressure in Cambodia since several years and independent media are virtually non-existent in the country. Cambodian authorities and employers have been continuously repeating the false mutual exclusiveness of a profitable garment sector and the operating of critical labour rights groups to silence all critical voices. This way they are creating a space where economic interests are valued more than workers’ rights, thinking that this is what buyers value.

The Ministry of Interior will likely take a decision on the investigation soon. We call on the ILO Better Work and its member brands to reach out to the Cambodia government and to underline that publishing a thorough investigation into an institution is not an illegal activity and may not be used as a valid reason for an investigation into the operations of CENTRAL.

Notes to editor


  • Ineke Zeldenrust, International Coordinator Clean Clothes Campaign International Office:, +31 651 280 210
  • Anne Bienias, Living Wage Coordinator Clean Clothes Campaign International Office:, +31 631 900 402
  • Mimmy Kowel, Clean Clothes Campaign South East Asia Regional Coordinator:, +62 812 1077 6375
published 2024-06-26