Chrek Sophea, former garment worker and interim coordinator of the Worker’s Information Centre (WIC), a women garment workers' base association in Phnom Penh, interviewed by Peter Boyle
An estimated 700,000 Cambodian garment, accessories and footwear workers (90% of whom are women) are among the lowest paid in this globalised industry. They produce fashionable products sold at high prices in the West under big brand names like Gap, Walmart, H&M, Puma, Nike, Adidas, Columbia and Levi Strauss. Major Australian retailers that source garments from Cambodia include Coles, Kmart, Target, Big W and Pacific Brands.
On December 24 last year, about 50,000 to 100,000 of these workers began taking strike action after their demand for a US$160 minimum wage was met with an official offer of just US$95.
The strike was growing fast and began to combine with the political opposition's call for new elections following a disputed general election result last year. However, brutal military intervention against the strikers on January 2-3 – which resulted in the killing of at least four workers and serious injuries to many more – have forced an uneasy suspension of the strike.
According to a report in the Cambodia Daily, Major General Roth Srieng, the commander of the Phnom Penh Municipal Military Police, defended the shooting of workers: “We cannot allow them to block the road and we have to crack down on them.”
Many workers, some of whom have been badly beaten up according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), are still being detained in a military camp. (See LICADHO's graphic photo album of what it has described as “worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in fifteen years”.)
On January 4, an opposition protest camp in Freedom Park was also violently dispersed.
When did the strike first begin?
The strike began on the December 24, 2013. It was on the negotiation day of the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC) on the minimum wage at the Ministry of Labor Vocational Training (MOLVT). The strike was begun by about two hundreds workers who gathered in a peaceful protest in front of the MOLVT.
Eventually, I estimated, there were about fifty to a hundred thousand workers involved in the strike which was organised by the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union (CATU), Free Trade Union of Workers of Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), Worker Friendship Union Federation (WFUF), and Independent Youth Union Confederation (IDYTU).
We had been informed that the negotiations for a minimum wage of US$160 a month had failed. LAC decided to increase the current minimum wage which is US$80 to just US$95. In response, the workers were asked by their unions to go on strike on the next day.
A worker can barely meet her basic living expenses with US$160 a month and most are expected to send money home to support their families in the countryside, where there are few jobs. So they have to do as much overtime as they can get. Most work between 10 to 12 hours to earn about US$5 per day, including food allowance.
Workers have to eat less nutritious food to save money. Usually workers have to share rooms to reduce the living costs further. These rooms are small boxes which are hot and poorly ventilated. Sometimes they don't have toilets.
The workers also demanded:
- Employers provide a food allowance US$3 per day (covering three meals).
- Employers be forced to deposit severance pay at the National Bank of Cambodia so that if a factory closes down workers will get their entitlements.
- An end to using the illegal fixed duration contract which has had a serious negative impact to the workers’ rights and conditions.
- An end the practice of factories paying rich and powerful people to be their backers.
- A solution to an earlier conflict over the use of armed police and military to intimidate workers at the SL Garments factory. One worker was killed, several injured and arrested in that dispute.
By December 25, the majority of the factories in Phnom Penh were not operating as their workers had decided to join the strike to demand the minimum wage.
The Cambodian government blames the opposition parties for using the strike for their own objectives. Is this true or false?
The ruling party points its finger at the opposition party while the opposition does the same to the ruling party. The current political crisis shows that both the ruling and opposition parties are not really committed to solving the problems of the ordinary citizens. Both parties are creating instability, fear, tension and anger.
The violence grew after the striking workers were asked to join the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ongoing protest at Freedom Park against the results of the July 2013 elections which were won by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
The WIC held a meeting December 28 about what was happening and discussed with local leaders and workers activists about our concern that the workers struggle should remain independent of both the CNRP and the CPP. Both parties should respect the independence of the workers' movement.
When did the violent clashes begin?
The violence began in the morning of the January 2, 2014 at two areas of Pur Senchey district, in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. One of these areas is called Campo where a few unions’ leaders and about ten workers were arrested.
The next violent attack by large numbers of police and military happened in another area in front of the Canadia Industrial Park at around 4pm. This continued to the midnight where a clash took place and the police were turned back. This turned into the deadly violence on the next day when at least four workers were killed.
It was very hard to know who was who under this chaotic situation. There are many allegations of the involvement of red-arm-banded provocateurs who could have been a mix of plainclothes police and hired thugs. Together with other worker's rights groups, we are helping to organise an independent investigation into these incidents.
But what I witnessed when my colleagues and I travelled around the factory compounds located in the Phnom Penh outskirt areas on the morning of January 2 – including the place where the most deadly clash happened – was a peaceful strike. The strikers had been singing and dancing and calling out their demand for USD160 wage a month.
What other action have the authorities taken to repress or intimidate the workers?
Riot police were placed at most of the factories areas, especially in front of the factories on the January 3 and 4. The government claimed that this was to secure the factories’ property. Following that deployment of the riot police, the Phnom Penh municipal government issued a decree that any gathering of ten people in a public place was not allowed. They claimed that this was to protect “the public interest and social stability” but in fact it was used to break the strike.
When I went to meet workers in Veng Sreng Street area on January 12 there were still riot police outside and inside the factories. They had frightened most workers into suspending their strike and returning to work. Some workers had fled to the countryside to hide.
Later in a meeting, an older woman worker organiser from the area described what it was like for her on January 3:
“I felt like I was shot when I heard the sound of the shooting. Never in my life had I felt so scared. I saw many other workers run when they saw the riot police. We were asked not to leave our rented room compounds. The gates were locked because the owner was afraid that strikers or the riot police would come in.”
Have trade unions and solidarity activists in other countries shown any support yet?
Yes, there have been solidarity actions by workers, trade unions and others in Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Britain and Germany. But we need more solidarity.
We need friends around the world to put pressure on the big global clothing companies to pay decent wages to the workers in Cambodia and other countries who produce the clothes they sell and on the Cambodian government to respect workers' rights to organise and strike.