Vol. 77/No. 33 September 23, 2013
BY EMMA JOHNSON
In hard-fought battles, garment workers in Cambodia are pressing for higher wages, safer workplaces and union protection. The number of strikes are at record numbers and violent clashes between workers and repressive forces of the bosses and their government have been frequent.
Investment in Cambodia’s garment industry is surging. The sector accounts for 80 percent of the country’s total exports, which rose by 32 percent last year.
Singapore-owned SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd employs 6,000 workers in the capital Phnom Penh and produces for Gap, H&M and Levi’s.
On Aug. 12 workers struck the company demanding a monthly wage of $150, up from the present $80, the government-set minimum. Other demands included lunch stipend of $3, removal of military police inside the plant and the firing of a recently hired company adviser who had brought in the cops.
“We tried to negotiate, but the company didn’t listen,” Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, told the Militant Sept. 9 in a phone interview from Phnom Penh. The union is one of three in the plant.
“This factory was established in 1996,” he said. “In 2010 we went on strike for the first time. In 2012 we organized a union. But the company still refuses to recognize or negotiate with it.”
Workers who assembled outside the plant during the strike were harassed by the military cops, Thorn said.
On Aug. 27 some 4,000 workers rallied at the Ministry of Social Affairs, demanding removal of the military police. The cops put up roadblocks, but marchers broke through and reached the ministry. Three days later workers ended the strike following a meeting between the union, the company and the Phnom Penh municipal government.
“But nothing was settled,” Thorn said. “We have no agreement on improved conditions. We tried to negotiate, but the company responded Sept. 4 by dismissing more than 700 workers.”
The day after the firings 4,000 workers marched to Phnom Penh’s City Hall, demanding government intervention. The government ordered SL Garment to reinstate the workers.
“All have been reinstated,” Thorn said. “But we still have no agreement. And if the company continues to refuse to listen, there will be new strikes.”
The industry employs 500,000 workers in more than 500 garment and shoe factories, with an average size of 1,000. More than 90 percent are women from rural villages moving into newly created industrial production centers. Some 450 of the 500 factories produce for export, primarily to big retailers in imperialist countries.
It’s not uncommon for workers to faint on the shop floor because of heat, lack of ventilation, malnutrition, chemical exposure and long workdays. The Labor Ministry reported that last year more than 1,600 workers fainted at some 20 factories. Unions give a higher figure.
“The question of short-term contracts is my number one issue,” said Kong Athit, vice president of the Apparel Workers Union, in a Sept. 10 phone interview. “Workers have no employment protection, they get one month, then another month, then another. In the older companies, some 30 percent are on temporary contracts, in the newer ones it is often all the workers. Companies use short-term contracts to get rid of those who fight for improvements.”
Athit said raising the minimum wage to $150 is needed to keep up with high inflation.
“Today 90 percent of the factories are without contracts,” he said. “Bosses want to keep it this way and they retaliate against workers who start organizing unions.”
From January to July garment workers in Cambodia have mounted 83 strikes, according to the Garment Manufacturers Association. Last year there were 121 strikes, the highest figure since records started being kept in 2003.
“Workers overexercise their rights. You see so many strikes in Cambodia,” Ken Loo, secretary-general of the association said to the July 8 Wall Street Journal.
“This is what happens when companies refuse to listen to the workers, refuse to negotiate with the unions,” Athit said. Through such struggles workers won an increase in the minimum wage in 2010 and again this year, he said.
“The garment workers have weight in the economy,” Athit continued. “In the national elections earlier this year all the parties wanted our vote, so they were very friendly to us and made promises. But what we have won, we have fought for ourselves. It never stops, if we don’t keep pushing, they will take it back. And there is so much more we need.”
Athit pointed to another factor working to the benefit of the workers: competition between companies for workers. “Supply of skilled workers is a problem. Most existing factories are running at full capacity,” Kaing Monica of the Garment Manufacturers Association told Reuters June 6.