Prospects for approval of the measure, introduced by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., are cloudy. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has endorsed the proposal, aimed at helping the world's poorest countries develop. But with public support for trade ebbing, and the economy weakening, lawmakers may shy in an election year from being seen as helping foreign workers.
The stakes for Cambodia's 14 million people in the coming U.S. debate are enormous. Even after the current boom, what the typical Cambodian earns in a year wouldn't buy a decent TV in the USA. (Per-capita income is just $550.) There are only 1,000 miles of paved roads in the entire country, which is roughly the size of Missouri, and only 10% of the population has access to electricity.
Scars remain from turmoil
Scars from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge era remain vivid. Under radical leader Pol Pot, black-clad guerillas systematically murdered lawyers, doctors, teachers — sometimes even those wearing eyeglasses — in a demented bid to return Cambodia to a pristine, agricultural existence. The Khmer Rouge ultimately were ousted by a Vietnamese invasion.
Only in 1999 did the country enjoy its first entirely peaceful year in three decades. Today, a surge in tourism is clear evidence of the turnaround. For the first 10 months of this year, Cambodia recorded 1.6 million foreign visitors vs. 286,524 in 1998.
The stunning temples of Angkor Wat are the country's principal draw. On typical days, the extraordinary 12th-century monuments are packed shoulder to shoulder with hordes of South Korean, Japanese and American tourists.
Heart and soul of economy
While the country harbors long-term hopes of developing possible offshore oil deposits, the garments industry is the heart and soul of its economy. From virtually nothing in 1994, the industry has grown to an estimated $3 billion in exports and directly employs 355,000 workers. They in turn support an estimated 1.7 million people with regular payments to family members, who often live in poor rural villages with little economic activity, according to the International Finance Corp.
Sokla Sem, 29, came to the capital to find factory work 11 years ago after the death of her father. Working for a Chinese-owned shirt factory, she and her sister made a combined monthly salary of $150. Of that amount, they sent two-thirds to their mother to pay for the education of an older brother. Sem, like many young women here, has only a fourth-grade education.
After being fired in a dispute over pay, she became a labor activist. But she hasn't forgotten the economic imperative that drives the country's leading industry.
"It was very difficult for me when I started working in the factory," she says. "But I didn't care about the difficulty; I cared about making money that I could send home."