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Apr
6

Cambodia’s bicycle firms face bumps in the road

bicycle factoryImage copyright
Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Image caption

Workers fully assemble each bike and then detach the wheel for shipping from the factory

Made in Cambodia is a common label on clothing from shirts and skirts to cycling shorts, but these days there’s a good chance the bicycle itself will also have been made there.

The south east Asian nation is making the most of shifting global trade patterns to diversify its economy, and it is now listed as the fifth-largest exporter of bicycles in the world after China, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Germany.

But concerns over democratic freedoms mean there could be bumps in the road ahead.

At the Bavet Special Economic Zone, right on Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, and just 50km north west of Ho Chi Minh City, the industry is gearing up to make the most of growing demand.

Inside a factory belonging to Taiwanese-owned firm Speedtech, bicycle frames hang from hooks like meat carcasses at a market.

Image copyright
Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Image caption

A Speedtech factory worker examines frames before they head to the chemical wash

Workers, some in protective goggles or welding masks, are engrossed in their tasks along the production line, ignoring the biting scent of spray paint. The starting salary of $350 (£268) a month compares well with the garment industry, but the air is humid and heavy, and when the monsoon downpour arrives in early afternoon there’s a whoop of delight but no pause in production.

When Speedtech first arrived at Bavet in 2013 it was only doing final assembly, says vice-general manager, Aliette Tong. Now the workers weld and paint frames too. The factory can turn out up to 2,000 bicycles a day if the demand is there, he adds.

Image copyright
Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Image caption

A worker moves a crate of newly-welded bicycle frames between vats of acid wash

But the industry still has shallow roots.

At Speedtech everything other than the frame is imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan or China, explains Mr Tong. Even the steel used to make the frame is imported from China.

“In this period, parts makers are more are interested in Vietnam,” he says.

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Moreover, the finished bicycles are exported, not from Cambodia’s main port at Preah Sihanouk, which is a gruelling nine-hour drive to the west, but via Ho Chi Minh City’s Cat Lai port, four to five hours east of here, even though that entails additional customs processes at the border.

China’s loss

What prompted Speedtech to move its operations from Vietnam to Cambodia in the first place, alongside two other Taiwanese-owned manufacturers, A & J and Smart Tech, was a decision by the European Union in 2005 to impose anti-dumping measures on Vietnam, making Vietnamese exports more expensive.

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