The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 78/No. 10      March 17, 2014

Garment workers in Cambodia
fight for raise in minimum wage
(front page)
Garment workers in Cambodia conducted a five-day overtime boycott at the end of February, their first major action since a bloody government crackdown ended a national strike for a minimum wage increase Jan 3.

Tens of thousands of workers took part in the Feb. 24-28 walkout, demanding the wage increase, release of unionists jailed during the strike, an end to a ban of public protests, compensation to families of strikers killed by government forces and prosecution of the military cops who shot them.

The previous strike began Dec. 25, when hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs and took to the streets in response to the government decision to raise the monthly minimum wage to $100, far short of their demand of $160. Protests and strike actions subsided after riot cops and soldiers attacked and opened fire on demonstrators Jan. 3, killing five workers and seriously injuring dozens. Twenty-one strikers are still being held at a high-security prison.

On Feb. 13, 18 unions and labor federations announced a plan of new actions, starting with the overtime boycott.

“It’s a campaign to push the factory owners and the government to increase the minimum wage for garment, textile and shoe workers,” Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodia Confederation of Unions, told the Militant by phone from Phnom Penh March 3. “We have spread 200,000 leaflets to inform workers and we have received a good response. We can’t survive on $100 a month.”

Union leaders estimate that more than 100,000 workers boycotted overtime over the five days. There are 600,000 workers in some 800 plants in the garment and shoe industry in Cambodia. Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association, claimed few factories were affected.

“It was different between different factories,” Say Sokny, general secretary of the Free Trade Union, told the Militant March 4. “In some it was 10 percent, in some 25 percent, in some more. There were factories where all workers boycotted overtime.”

Units from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ Brigade 70 and Brigade 99, carrying AK-47s, began patrolling outside Canadia Industrial Park when the overtime boycott began Feb. 24. When workers left their factories without doing overtime the soldiers harassed them about leaving early.

“We’re in a difficult situation,” Khum Barang, 24, one of the workers, told the Cambodia Daily Feb. 27. “We are afraid because we know they will shoot at us, but if the rest strike, we have to join them.”

The Phnom Penh Post reported March 4 that workers at two different factories said managers had locked them inside the factory gates to stop them from joining the boycott.

Workers regularly work overtime to pay for rising prices of basic necessities. “We do not yet earn $100, but my landlord raised the price of my rental room by $5 and food prices have skyrocketed,” Sdoeung, who works at SL Garment Processing, told the Post Feb. 19. “Sometimes we work 16-hour days.” Rents and food prices around the factories and in workers’ neighborhoods are pegged to the minimum wage. Wages for garment workers dropped by 22 percent in real terms between 2001 and 2011.

On Feb. 27, 82 workers fainted in a garment factory from inhaling fumes from leaking battery acid and 26 fainted the same day in a shoe plant from inhaling glue fumes.

On Feb. 19, the country’s commerce and labor ministers met with representatives from H&M, Gap and Puma, retailers that buy apparel produced in Cambodia. “We can see frequent industrial conflicts coming here,” an H&M representative told the Cambodia Daily. “For H&M to continue to develop in Cambodia … we need stability, healthy industrial relations, a functioning wage mechanism. … We need a sourcing country that is predictable [and] stable.”

The same day Prime Minister Hun Sen beefed up the government’s Committee to Solve Strikes and Demonstrations of All Targets, which is tasked to deal with workers’ protests. Added to it were the commander and deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, commander of the National Military Police, National Police chief, secretary of state of the Defense Ministry, head of the Defense Ministry’s counter-terrorism department and commander of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit.

“It’s a good sign that heads of various armed forces are now direct members of the committee,” said Loo.

“They are trying to scare people, but we will move ahead with our campaign,” Sokny said. “On March 8, International Women’s Day, we plan a forum in Freedom Park in the center of Phnom Penh to keep pressure on the government. If nothing is resolved by March 12, we will organize a stay-at-home strike. We do not plan to organize workers to go out into the streets” at this time.
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