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Breaking News: Cambodian Protests Turn Deadly; Police Fire into Crowds

Cambodian police opened fire on a crowd of several hundred garment workers protesting in the streets in Phnom Penh today. At least three people have died and twenty-three wounded. The police were armed with assault rifles and claim that they only fired after the crowd began to bombard them with rocks and bottles. Ten more were arrested.

Up until now, while the protests have been impassioned they have largely avoided violent confrontation. The civil discord grew out of rampant dissatisfaction with the new minimum wage recently approved by the Cambodian government, thought by many labor activists to be insultingly low.

Initially, 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.

However, the streets were overrun by  a deluge of chagrined factory workers, furious over what they considered to be a stingy  increase. Tens of thousands of workers launched an organized march on December 24, shutting down factory production, halting transportation. In an attempt to placate the demonstrators, the Cambodian government offered to raise the wages by an additional 25 percent to $100 per month, effective sometime in February, instead of the original proposal of $95 per month.

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The Cambodian government also followed its carrot with a stick, warning demonstrators to suspend their protests and return to work, or suffer legal action. Ken Loo, Secretary General of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said, “We are asking the unions to respect the law.”

Police authorities have been slow to express even a hint of contrition following the shooting. Deputy Chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, Chuon Narin, called the protesters “gangsters,” blamed them for “violence toward the police.” Union leaders angrily demanded an investigation into the incident begin immediately.

The Cambodian government still stubbornly refuses to adjust its minimum wage proposal or participate in further negotiations. Labor activists seem equally intractable.

Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said, “Workers will continue with their protests because the new increase isn’t much different from the previous offer. We call on the government to find more mechanisms to increase workers’ wages to a suitable level.”

The stakes for Cambodia are high as it becomes progressively more reliant upon its burgeoning garment industry. In the first eleven months of 2013, it earned $5.1 billion exporting garments, a 22 percent increase over last year. The industry employs more than 300,000 workers, more than 90 percent of them female. Foreign investment has recently poured into Cambodia from Australia, England, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and the U.S. China alone sent the nation $121 million in 2013.