Acleda Bank earlier this month called a recent report on the indebtedness of garment workers dangerously misleading, saying the report distorted facts and could incite social unrest.

The bank’s statement follows the release of “Worked to Debt: Over-Indebtedness in Cambodia’s Garment Sector,” a joint report that said tens of thousands of workers were suffering because of microfinance loans.

The joint report was written by the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, labor group Central, and human rights NGO Licadho.

The report went beyond mere inaccuracies, the bank said, with defamatory claims intended to tarnish the image of banks and microfinance institutions. Acleda has asked authorities to investigate, and to take legal action in case of reputational damage.

“Please take legal action against any person or group that causes disruption, impairs national economic stability, and loses the trust and safety of depositors in the sector of banks and finance as a whole,” the statement said.

Attempts to contact In Channy, CEO of Acleda Bank, went unanswered.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for human rights at Licadho, said the group interviewed 162 workers at three fully or partially suspended factories in Kampong Chhnang province and Phnom Penh.

“As a result, 158 people said they were in debt to a bank and were afraid they would be unable to repay their loans,” he said.

The longer workers go without pay, the more fragile their financial situations become, he said.

“Workers are fearful about their future,” he said. “They are thinking, firstly, can I sell some land to get money and repay my loan; secondly, can I eat less; and thirdly, can I borrow the money from somewhere. This is their concern.”

Among its points of contention, Acleda denounced the report because its authors spoke to only several dozen of the industry’s 800,000 workers.

But Khun Tharo, a program coordinator for Central, said the study never claimed to represent the industry as whole, much less the country’s estimated 2.6 million MFI clients. Still, of the 162 workers they spoke with, 158 said loan payment conditions represented a significant burden.

“We had no intention of harming the reputation of Acleda or any microfinance institution in Cambodia,” he said. “But this study shows the real challenges that workers face when they lose their income and cannot afford to repay the bank.”