How will EU Trade Curb Affect Cambodia’s Apparel Industry?

Key findings:

1. The garment industry matters significantly to Cambodia, both economically, and socially. As of 2019, as much as 70% of Cambodia’s merchandise exports were apparel items. Likewise, around one-third of Cambodia’s manufacturing output currently comes from the garment sector alone. Further, as of 2016, the garment industry in Cambodia employed nearly 928,600 workers (almost 79% were female), an increase of 239% from 2007.

2. Cambodia’s apparel exports have enjoyed steady growth in recent decades,  reaching US$7.83 billion in 2018 – a jump of 256% from US$2.2 billion in 2005. Yet, it faces several major challenges:

  • Due to limited production techniques and capital availability, apparel producers in Cambodia are still mostly engaged in cut-make-trim (CMT) activities, meaning they rely heavily on imported textile raw material and are only able to make a marginal profit based on low-value-added sewing work.
  • Cambodia’s apparel exports are highly concentrated on the EU and the US markets, which together accounted for 73.4% of the country’s total garment exports in 2019.
  • Cambodia is facing intense competition in its main apparel export markets—there has been little growth in Cambodia’s share of EU and US apparel imports over the past two decades, remaining as low as 3% as of 2019.

3. Cambodia has benefited significantly from the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Established in 2001, the EBA trade initiative provides least developed countries (LDCs), such as Cambodia, with duty-free and quota-free access to the vast EU market for all products except weapons and ammunition. Like other EBA beneficiary countries, the majority (around 95%) of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU currently claim the duty- and quota-free EBA benefits.  

4. Out of concerns over Cambodia’s “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the European Commission on 12 February 2020 formally announced the withdrawal of part of the tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA program. Starting from 12 August 2020, a select group of Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU, together with all travel goods, sugar, and some footwear will be subject to the EU’s Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) tariff rat, which were at the rate of 11.5% on average for apparel items in 2019

5. Even the partial suspension of Cambodia’s EBA eligibility could result in significant and lasting negative impacts on its apparel exports to the EU:

  • The apparel items directly affected by the EBA suspension accounted for around 15% of the value of Cambodia’s total apparel exports to the EU in 2019. For those apparel categories directly targeted by the EBA suspension, EU fashion brands and retailers may quickly shift sourcing orders from Cambodia to other supplying countries to avoid paying the additional tariffs.
  • Social responsibility is being given more weight in fashion companies’ sourcing decisions. This means even those apparel items not directly targeted by the EU EBA suspension could face widespread order cancellations as sourcing from Cambodia is deemed to involve higher social compliance risks. In a worse but possible scenario, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the whole world could be under threat as many EU fashion brands and retailers operate globally and adopt a unified ethical standard and code of conduct for apparel sourcing across different markets.
  • Additionally, the timing cannot be worse: Due to the devastating hit by Covid-19, as of April 2020, Cambodia had reported nearly 130 garment factory closures and more than 100,000 workers laid off. These numbers may increase further as the effect of the pandemic continue to unfold.

Further reading: Abby Edge and Sheng Lu (2020). How will EU trade curb affect Cambodia’s apparel industry? Just-Style.

Discussion questions:

  1. What you would suggest to the Cambodian government or garment factories there to mitigate the negative impacts of the EU EBA suspension?
  2. Why or why not the EU should reconsider its decision to partially suspend Cambodia’s EBA eligibility because of Covid-19?
  3. If you were fashion brands and retailers that source from Cambodia, what would you do?

Cambodia May Lose Its Eligibility for European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) Program

Last week in FASH455, we discussed the unique critical role played by textile and apparel trade in generating economic growth in many developing countries. The developed countries also use trade policy tools, such as trade preference programs, to encourage the least developed countries (LDCs) making and exporting more apparel. However, a debate on these trade programs is that they have done little to improve the genuine competitiveness of LDCs’ apparel exports in the world marketplace, but instead have made LDCs rely heavily on these trade programs to continue their apparel exports. Here is one more example:

With growing concerns about “the deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in Cambodia”, in a statement made on February 12, 2019, the European Union says it has started the process that could lead to a temporary suspension of Cambodia’s eligibility for EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) program. Specifically, the EU process will include the following three stages:

  • Stage 1: six months of intensive monitoring and engagement with the Cambodian government;
  • Stage 2: another three months for the EU to produce a report based on the findings in stage 1
  • Stage 3: after a total of twelve months in stages 1 & 2, the EU Commission will conclude the procedure with a final decision on whether or not to withdraw tariff preferences; it is also at this stage that the Commission will decide the scope and duration of the withdrawal. Any withdrawal would come into effect after a further six-month period.

However, the EU Commission also stressed that launching the temporary withdrawal procedure does not entail an immediate removal of Cambodia’s preferential access to the EU market, which “would be the option of last resort.”

Developed in 2001, the EBA program establishes duty-free and quota-free treatment for all Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the EU market. EBA includes almost all industries other than arms and armaments. As of February 2019, there are 49 EBA beneficiary countries.

The EBA program has benefited the apparel sector in particular given clothing accounts for the lion’s share in many LDCs’ total merchandise exports. Because of the preferential duty benefits provided by EBA, many LDCs can compete with other competitive apparel powerhouses such as China. Notably, the EBA program also adopts the “cut and sew” rules of origin for apparel, which is more general than the “double transformation” rules of origin typically required by EU free trade agreement and trade preference programs. Under the “cut and sew” rule, Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU can enjoy the import duty-free treatment while using yarns and fabrics sourced from anywhere in the world.

Cambodia is a major apparel supplier for the EU market, accounting for approximately 4% of EU’s total apparel imports in 2017. Exporting apparel to EU through the EBA program is also of particular importance to Cambodia economically. In 2016, the apparel sector created over 500,000 jobs in Cambodia, of whom 86% were female, working in 556 registered factories. According to Eurostat, of EU’s €4.9bn imports from Cambodia in 2017, around 74.9% were apparel (HS chapters 61 and 62). Meanwhile, of EU’s €3.7bn apparel imports from Cambodia in 2017, as high as 96.6% claimed the EBA benefits. Understandably, losing the EBA eligibility could hurt Cambodia’s apparel exports to the EU significantly.