US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday urged Southeast Asian nations to promote workers' rights and improve labour conditions as a means of spurring economic growth, AFP reports.
"Standing up for workers' rights and high labour standards is not just the right and moral thing to do, it's also the smart and strategic thing as well," Clinton told a women's forum in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap.
Respecting such rights "holds the key to unlocking Asia's next great phase of growth and rebalancing the global economy".
Her comments came as US businesses are poised to push into Myanmar, virtually virgin territory as the United States only this week eased decades-old sanctions to allow US investment but attached stringent reporting conditions.
Clinton acknowledged that in Myanmar "as the economy opens up, there will be new challenges".
"It will be tempting, given the country's extremely low wages, to try to attract investment by undercutting competitors like Bangladesh and Cambodia."
But she argued long-term sustainable development would be strengthened if the nation's leaders "focus on protecting workers, attracting quality jobs, and continuing to reform the political system".
"Denying workers their universal rights costs societies dearly in lost productivity, innovation, and growth," Clinton insisted.
She held up neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia as examples where agreements with the United States had opened markets and helped spur economic growth.
While the agreement with Cambodia to open up the textile market "wasn't perfect", working conditions had improved and wages rose, she said.
She said investors came to the country because of the prospect of shaking off any reputation for using sweat-shop labour.
Now some 350,000 Cambodians, mostly young women, work in new factories, earning wages far above average.
But Clinton warned the current model under which Southeast Asian nations have grown thanks to "low-cost labour and materials, and by exporting affordable goods to more developed markets" may have reached its limits.
Changes were needed as Asia expands its middle-class and the United States and Europe look to boost their exports to the region, she said.
Clinton also called on multinationals to insist on high labour and ethical standards, saying even though it might require more investment it would pay dividends in Western markets keen for untainted goods.