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Cambodia Braces for Another Round of Garment Worker Protests

Amidst still bitter disputes over the minimum wage and labor conditions between garment factory workers and factory owners, Cambodia is bracing itself for another massive demonstration next week. A consortia of sixteen unions are also protesting a judicial decision to deny twenty-one incarcerated protesters bail.

Beginning on March 12, thousands of workers are planning to boycott their factories. The last organized demonstration, which took place late last February, gathered as many as 300,000 workers in the streets, purportedly causing shipment delays, waylaying a Cambodian economy heavily dependent upon garment production. According to Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement Workers, these protests will continue until their demands are finally met.

Cambodian laborers and factory owners have been locked in an often angry dispute about both wage increases and the increments with which they will be enacted. 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.

The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, an organization that represents the interests of factory owners, dismissed the protests as ineffectual. Ken Loo, secretary general of the group, insisted that “very few factories were affected” the last time workers took to the streets.

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Failing to gain any substantial ground in negotiations with the government, Cambodia labor organizations have also been exploring new strategies to win some leverage. In addition to the protests next week, at least 100 garment factories in Cambodia will collectively dismiss requests from management to work overtime. Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said, “We don’t know how many workers will boycott the overtime, but if the majority does boycott overtime, I think it’ll have a big affect [sic] on the companies.”

Overtime is a common feature of factory employment; most laborers work at east two to four hours of overtime each day, in addition to a standard eight-hour work day. In order to compel factory owners to raise the minimum wage further and improve factory safety, a total of eighteen unions have been encouraging their members to abstain from accepting any overtime.

The judicial issue to imprison twenty-one demonstrators has also been a catalyst for workers’ frustration. Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said, “We are disappointed with the government and the courts because we have given them a lot of time to solve these problems, but they have failed to deal with it. Therefore, it is our turn to take mass action to pressure the government to release the [21 prisoners] and increase worker salaries to $160.”

While the demonstrations have certainly exacted a toll on Cambodia’s garment manufacturing industry, its export business remains robust. Its apparel exports continue to surge despite political turmoil, rising 20 percent to $5.52 billion for 2013, according to its Ministry of Commerce. Exports to the E.U. were particularly robust, increasing 28 percent to $2 billion, while its deliveries to the U.S. jumped 7.6% to $2.12 billion.

Pressure from western nations on the Cambodian government to broker a peaceful compromise continues to mount. On January 17, President Obama signed the U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act, which halts any aid to Cambodia other than food and health related goods until the government conducts an investigation of parliamentary elections in July, which some say were tainted by corruption. In 2012, the U.S. sent about $70 million to Cambodia to finance various kinds of development.

The international retail community has taken notice of the discord. Major retailers who manufacture their apparel in Cambodia expressed concern over the unrest, as well the government’s heavy-handed response, circulating a jointly-signed letter in January calling for a peaceful resolution. The letter read, “It is with great concern that we have observed both the widespread civil unrest and the government’s use of deadly force. Our primary concerns are for the security and safety of the workers employed by our suppliers and the long-term stability of the Cambodian garment industry.” The signatories included representatives from H&M, Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co., among others.