The garment workers of Bangladesh were too often in headlines last year after the collapse of the Rana plaza building in April that left more than 1,100 dead and the Tazreen factory fire in November in which more than 100 died. In December, crowds of workers took to the streets to demand higher wages and safer working conditions.
The garment industry accounts for a huge share of Bangladesh’s economy and also of that of Cambodia. Last week, garment workers protested for higher pay in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh in strikes across the country. On the second day, military security forces opened fire with assault rifles, killing at least four. Protesters threw stones, bottles and petrol bombs, refusing to disperse from a factory.
Anti-government protesters had planned a huge mass rally on Saturday but called it off after the increasingly bloody crackdown by police. On the same day, with riot police standing by, city workers and security forces dismantled a camp where protesters including elderly farmers and Buddhist monks had been staying in Freedom Park (the only place in Phnom Penh where demonstrations are allowed) since December 15.
As of Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen — facing one of the most serious challenges in almost three decades of his authoritarian rule – banned all public gatherings. The political opposition has been supporting the garment workers in their calls for a higher minimum wage; the government has summoned the two main opposition leaders, former finance minister Sam Rainsy and Ken Sokha, for questioning.
Garment Workers Demanding a Higher Minimum Wage
The protests had started in December. This past Monday, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the country’s factories that export clothing, had refused to attend a meeting with independent unions to discuss raising the minimum wage which is currently $80 a month. The Cambodian government had offered to raise it to $95 the week before; workers and unions had called for it to be raised to $160 and had been holding large demonstrations that have resulted in factories shutting down throughout the country.
In a statement, GMAC has accused the six independent unions of destroying factory equipment and said that the “industry is unable to continue operations given the current situation.” A GMAC spokesperson claims that an estimated $10 to $15 million is lost each day that the factories are shut down and says that Cambodia’s “credibility… as a supplier company” is being compromised. On Thursday, the Ministry of Labor ordered workers to return to work and said that the minimum wage amount would remain at $95.
Protests are Part of a Simmering Political Crisis
The striking workers have been backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); the recent clashes represent “an escalation of a political crisis in Cambodia,” as Al Jazeera observes. Opposition supporters have been demanding that the government hold elections again, on the grounds that those in July were “rigged.”
The CNRP, which is led by Rainsy, contends that 2.3 million of its votes were stolen, leading to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to return to power. The National Election Committee says that the CPP won 68 seats in the election and the CNRP, 55. But the CNRP argues that the committee is under the CPP’s influence.
Hun Sen has been in power for 28 years and been accused by human rights groups of intolerance and quashing dissent. During last year’s elections, the previously scattered opposition parties came together and won votes from people fed up with low wages, government corruption and a “substantial number of forced mass evictions from farmland and city slums,” says Al Jazeera.
Rainsy has promised that, if elected to office, his government will nearly double the monthly minimum wage to $160, a pledge that has won the support of some 350,000 garment workers from nearly 500 factories across the country.
Police Force Protesters From Camp in Freedom Park
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world and the garment industry provides some $5 billion to its economy. Wages are lower than in China, Thailand and Vietnam, leading to companies including Gap, Adidas, Nike and Puma having their goods (apparel and shoes) made in Cambodian factories.
As Chheng Sophors of the human rights group Licadho said after the deaths of protesters, “If violence continues to happen and there are no talks, more violence will break out. Protesters have become angry.”
To Western consumers, their anger is yet another reminder that the cheap clothing (marked down even further after the holidays) appears in our stores as a result of the toil of thousands of underpaid workers in Cambodia as well as in Bangladesh. The world only really took notice of the plight of Bangladeshi workers following the tragic loss of too many lives. Will something similar have to occur before changes occur in Cambodia?
Photo via Nicholas Wang