U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on July 13 urged Southeast Asian nations to promote workers' rights and improve labor conditions as a means of spurring economic growth.

"Standing up for workers' rights and high labor standards is both right and moral, it's also smart and strategic," Clinton told a women's forum in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap.

Respecting workers' rights "leads to positive economic outcomes including higher levels of investment. And bringing women into the economy has ripple effects," she said, adding it boosted equal opportunity and raised taxes for governments.

Her comments come as U.S. businesses are poised to push into Myanmar, virtually virgin territory for the West, as the United States only this week eased decades-old sanctions to allow U.S. investment but attached stringent reporting conditions.

Clinton acknowledged that in Myanmar as it opens up "there will be a lot of challenges" but said she hoped to see "continuing progress there".

And she insisted Washington was setting up "protections to ensure that increased American investment advances the reform process" as U.S. firms will have to report on transparency and labor rights.

"Denying workers their universal rights costs societies dearly in lost productivity, innovation, and growth, as well as undermining the rule of law and creating instability", Clinton insisted.

Economic Growth in Vietnam, Cambodia

She held up neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia as examples where agreements with the United States had opened markets and helped spur economic growth.

Some 350,000 Cambodians, mostly young women, now work in the country's garment factories.

Many earn around $100 a month, though that usually includes significant overtime, and calls for higher pay have prompted dozens of strikes this year involving thousands of workers.

While the agreement with Cambodia to open up the textile market "wasn't perfect", working conditions had improved and wages had risen, Clinton said.

But she warned the current model under which Southeast Asian nations have grown thanks to "low-cost labor 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.

Copyright 2012 Agence France-Presse