PHNOM PENH, Jan 8 ― Cambodian workers demanding higher wages to toil in factories making Gap jeans and Nike trainers have found themselves on the frontline of a bloody crackdown on dissent by strongman premier Hun Sen.
Months of peaceful protests by opposition supporters demanding new elections have posed little threat to Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
But when striking factory workers began to join forces with the opposition, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) responded swiftly with at least four workers shot dead and dozens wounded by security forces.
The tough tactics reflect the potent political force represented by the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers who stitch the clothes and footwear worn by many in the West.
“If the two streams of protest had been allowed to merge ― political opponents and striking workers ― they would have presented a threat of enormous magnitude to the Hun Sen regime,” said Cambodia expert Carl Thayer.
If the two movements come together and adopt a militant stance, the Hun Sen regime “can either resort to brute force to crush opposition or the CPP can jettison Hun Sen in the hopes of clinging to power,” said Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
About 650,000 workers provide the backbone of Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment industry ― a key source of foreign income for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation.
They are demanding a doubling of the minimum wage to US$160 (RM525) a month, or about US$8 a day. So far the government has offered them US$100.
Safety worries are also rife in an industry that periodically sees mass fainting episodes often blamed on poor health, bad ventilation or exposure to dangerous chemicals.
A struggle to survive
Mother-of-two Oeurn Dany, 30, works for up to 10 hours a day, six days a week, to feed her family and send her children to school.
“We have many difficulties to survive with the current wage,” she told AFP. “Workers also often get sick due to the conditions, including chemical substances on the cloth.”
Rather than a boycott, she urged consumers to buy more clothes made in Cambodia so she has enough work, while pressuring the brands to ensure fair wages and conditions.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has urged Western clothing companies and consumers to be responsible when buying what he described as “blood garments”.
He urged consumers in the United States and Europe “to check if there is any drop of blood in the garment they intend to buy”.
Hun Sen has overseen Cambodia’s transformation from a nation devastated by the regime’s “Killing Fields” genocide era in the late 1970s to become one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant economies.
The 61-year-old prime minister has ruled for 28 years and vowed to continue until he is 74.
His government is regularly accused of ignoring human rights and suppressing political dissent, and the opposition has boycotted parliament since July elections, alleging widespread vote rigging.
Hun Sen’s critics allege that the deadly crackdown on striking workers, some of whom were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police, was a pretext for a raid the following day on a peaceful opposition protest in a Phnom Penh park.
The government has since indefinitely banned demonstrations and the garment workers have ended their strike. Most have returned to work while some fled back to their villages in fear.
‘Not scared to return to the streets’
Despite the lull in tensions, the workers say the battle is not over.
“We will continue our demand for higher wages until we have enough money,” said Khim Vat, 42, who works at a factory producing clothes for brands including Nike.
“I’m very angry about the recent crackdown but I will join any strike in the future ― I’m not scared.”
Pressure is mounting from international brands and labour movements to avoid further bloodshed.
“We strongly oppose any form of violence, and urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to drive negotiations among stakeholders to peacefully resolve this dispute,” Gap Inc. spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson told AFP.
H&M said it too opposed “all kinds of violence”, appealing for peaceful wage talks.
The row highlights a broader dilemma facing manufacturers ― how to balance the expectations of Western consumers for affordable clothing with the demands of workers for a rising wage.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) says the strikes have already cost the industry US$200 million.
The risk for Cambodia is that if the industry becomes uncompetitive, the brands might take their business elsewhere.
With a current minimum wage of around US$80 per month for garment workers, Cambodian labour costs are already higher than in Bangladesh, the world's second largest clothes manufacturer, but below those of industry leader China.
By comparison, garment sector workers receive a minimum or average monthly wage of about $68 in Bangladesh, US$80-US$100 in Myanmar, US$90-US$130 in Vietnam and US$170-US$250 in China.
“There will always be another low cost labour source somewhere on the horizon,” said Douglas Clayton, chief executive of Leopard Capital, a private-equity firm that invests in frontier markets.
“Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar can still provide lots of willing workers,” he said.
“Western brands will do the minimum response required to avoid negative publicity. They know that most Western shoppers care more about value than values.” ― AFP