Despite the announcement of an eagerly awaited rise in the minimum wage for factory workers, Cambodia’s manufacturing industry has been halted by tens of thousands of protesters, swarming the streets in a show of demonstration.
Garment workers walked out of more than 120 factories angrily denouncing the new salary structure as still inadequate. Some union leaders have estimated that as many as 300,000 workers have participated in the organized demonstrations, though most observers pin the number in the tens of thousands. Since last January, Cambodia has been roiled by 131 business-stymieing strikes.
The Labour Advisory Committee reported a $15 increase in monthly wages, effective April 1, 2014. Under the newly accepted plan, the minimum wage will rise incrementally over the next five years, lifting it from its current $80 per month to more than $160 per month. In 2015, the monthly minimum wage is set to increase again by $15, then by $16 in 2016, $17 in 2017 and, finally, $17 in 2018. Unions have been demanding that the minimum wage increase to the target $160 immediately.
And the demonstrations have turned political since the workers have recruited the political support of the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP has been protesting the results of a hotly disputed election last July and has been effective in channeling that electoral frustration into broader expressions of socioeconomic discontent.
Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the CNRP, said, “What the workers are demanding is suitable. Inflation is rising and wages are comparatively lower than in other countries. If the government is incapable or unwilling to meet the workers’ demands, they should step down.”
It remains unclear how long these protests will last or what the Cambodian government is prepared to do in order to quell continued unrest. Some experts are concerned that civil instability could eventually wreak havoc upon an economy centrally organized around garment manufacturing. President of the Cambodian Economic Association, Chan Sophal, said, “If the situation gets worse, investors may be forced to leave and seek manufacturing bases in other countries.”