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Vol. 78/No. 36      October 13, 2014

Cambodian garment workers
renew wage fight
(special feature)
In the weeks leading up to a government decision on a new minimum wage, garment workers in Cambodia have stepped up pressure to raise it from $100 to $177 a month with strikes and protest actions. On Sept. 17 lunchtime rallies took place outside garment plants around the country.

The government responded by indicting the presidents of six union federations on trumped-up charges of inciting violence last year when government forces attacked strikers.

“I joined the action today at Canadia Industrial Park here in Phnom Penh,” Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said in a phone interview from that city Sept. 17. “There were actions at 200 plants and tens of thousands took part. We came together to show that $177 is what workers need. We sent this message to the employers and the government.”

Some 500 took part in the rally, Thorn said.

“I really want to join, but I’m afraid something might happen like on Jan. 2 and 3, when authorities killed many workers,” Si Neang told Cambodia Daily as she watched the protest from the sidelines. “How can we join them when there are soldiers here with AKs?”

Dozens of soldiers were deployed to Canadia as army helicopters flew overhead. The rally took place near the site of a government crackdown on a nationwide strike for a $160 monthly minimum wage in January. Military police opened fire on workers, killing five and ending the strike.

A new coalition of 11 unions is leading the fight now. “It’s easy to break one chopstick, but you cannot break a bundle,” Long Dy told the Daily.

The fight for higher wages has been going on for several years. Through strikes, demonstrations and other actions in the factories and streets, workers won an increase in the minimum wage from $61 in 2010 to $100 after the walkout at the end of last year. In 2013 workers in the industry conducted 131 strikes, a record.

In October, after a recommendation from the Labor Advisory Committee — comprised of representatives from the government, the bosses and the unions — the government will decide the annual minimum wage raise to take effect in January. The committee announced it had concluded that workers need a wage between $157 and $177.

Protests subsided after the January crackdown. But industrial actions began to take place at individual plants over the summer.

During the first week of September, presidents of six of the major independent union federations were served summons on charges of inciting violence during the January crackdown.

“They intend to stop us from launching our new minimum wage campaign as well as taking a court injunction to repress all of us,” Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, told the Militant by email Sept. 17. Sina was summoned to Phnom Penh Municipal Court Sept. 12, where he was ordered to report to police every month and not take part in union actions until the case is settled. “Today we joined in the new campaign with local union leaders, activists and workers in all regions to push for a decent, living wage in Cambodia,” he said.

In the January crackdown the government arrested 25 workers and supporters, who were jailed for five months. They were brought to trial May 30 as a result of a broad campaign demanding their release. They were sentenced to between one and four and a half years in jail, but the judge suspended the sentences immediately and released them.

“It was a victory that they were released, and it was because of the national and international campaign,” Thorn said. “But the important thing for the government was the guilty verdict.”

Since March anyone who wishes to register a union must prove to the government they do not have a criminal record. “I’m charged with four different counts. If I’m convicted I face 10 years in jail,” he said. “The government is trying to stop the campaign for a living wage by going after the unions. But the workers need the wages and they won’t stop fighting for them,” he said.
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