Cambodia’s pandemic-hit garment industry took another blow on Wednesday, losing some of its duty-free trade access to the E.U., with the bloc noting that the government had failed to make political reforms to avoid the penalties.
In a statement, the E.U.’s trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, said there was an “urgent need for Cambodia to respect human rights and labour rights,” and that the bloc was prepared to once again drop the reinstated tariffs if Cambodia improved its human rights record.
The “Everything But Arms” trade scheme had previously given Cambodia duty-free and quota-free access to the E.U. market — the destination for nearly half of the country’s exports in 2018.
However, following the dissolution of the main opposition CNRP in 2017, international criticism of Cambodia’s democratic backsliding intensified. After a one-year formal review, the E.U. announced in February that the trade benefits would be partially rescinded due to “serious and systematic violations” of human rights in Cambodia.
The suspension took effect on Wednesday, affecting about 20 percent of Cambodian exports to the E.U. Twenty-five categories of garments, nine of footwear, five of travel goods, and sugar are targeted by the renewed tariffs.
In its latest announcement, the E.U. reiterated its demands to the government to protect political and human rights.
“The Cambodian authorities should take action to restore political freedoms in the country, to re-establish the necessary conditions for a credible, democratic opposition and to initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue,” it said.
“[T]he Cambodian Government could at any time have taken the necessary steps to fulfil the conditions allowing the European Union to fully restore EBA preferential access to the EU market. This remains the case.”
The E.U. tariffs come as the garment sector is already reeling from the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has caused international demand to plummet.
According to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, more than 150,000 jobs have been lost as 400 factories suspended operations.
The government has announced a series of support and stimulus measures, which were this month extended till the end of September. Some unions have criticized the difficulty of accessing the government’s $40 a month allowances for suspended garment workers.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong told VOD that Cambodia has clarified its EBA position already, repeating a statement made often by officials that the government will not exchange its sovereignty for foreign aid.
Asked about the E.U.’s calls for Cambodia to restore political rights to members of the court-dissolved opposition, Kuong said, “What is legal is purely a matter of the courts. This means that [the Cambodian government] cannot do anything to exchange sovereignty for aid or trade preferences.”
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan made similar statements during a press conference earlier on Wednesday, saying the E.U.’s decision was political and unjust, but that the government had already prepared for the loss of trade benefits.
“We cannot kneel down and beg,” Siphan said.
Additional reporting by Ouch Sony