The European Union is considering imposing tariffs on Cambodian garments – clothing is the country’s main export, bringing in some $5bn a year. And Europe is its largest market.

Under a preferential tariff regime, the Cambodian government is supposed to respect the democratic and humanitarian principles of the UN charter and the EU’s Lisbon treaty, as well as the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on workers’ rights.

But this is not the case. In response, European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom sent a warning to the Cambodian government last month.

As reported by The Economist, Cambodia’s strongman, Hun Sen, has been in power for more than 30 years. Brutal campaigns against his opponents help keep him in the job. Ahead of an election in July, the government arrested the leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition; closed independent news outlets; and intimidated activists. The courts helped by dissolving the CNRP completely. The ruling party duly won every one of the 125 seats in parliament.

Malmstrom has condemned all this as “blatant disregard” for human rights.

According to The Economist, the imposition of tariffs on garments could cause severe economic pain.

The European Commission does not want to hurt the industry’s 740,000-odd workers, most of whom are women from the countryside. Many village homes have changed from wood to brick thanks to garment workers’ remittances.

Foreign clothing brands are also pressing the government to ease up. A delegation from such firms as Nike and Adidas visited Cambodia in recent weeks to argue for better treatment of labour leaders and other activists.

“We fully understand the need for the European Union to look into how to address the human-rights situation in Cambodia,” declares a spokesman for H&M, a Swedish fashion giant. If tariffs do bite, flighty firms can always move elsewhere. A new free-trade deal between the EU and Vietnam makes the latter an attractive alternative.