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Cambodian Labor Activists Cancel Massive Protests

Cambodia garment workers cancelled a massive four-day strike that was planned to begin today, March 12.

Tens of thousands of workers were purportedly planning to boycott the factories that employ them. The last organized demonstration, which took place late last month, gathered as many as 300,000 workers in the streets, purportedly causing shipment delays, waylaying a Cambodian economy heavily dependent upon garment production. Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement Workers, initially said these protests would defiantly continue until their demands are finally met. A consortia of sixteen unions were also planning on protesting a judicial decision to deny twenty-one incarcerated protesters bail.

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.

It remains unclear precisely why the protests were cancelled and if all the participating unions agreed to the cancellation. A spokesperson for the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia said that the decision was made in order to create an opportunity for further dialogue between workers, factory owners and government officials. However, up until now, labor leaders had stubbornly insisted the planned demonstrations were necessary to propel such a discussion.

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This is not the first time labor activists have backed down from saber-rattling rhetoric. In January, labor activists seem cowed by the threat of retaliation from police, especially after they fired into a crowd of hundreds of protesters, killing four and injuring dozens more. A similarly major protest was cancelled in order to avoid more bloodshed. A spokesperson for the political opposition party sponsoring the demonstration at the time said, “The Cambodia National Rescue Party would like to inform all national compatriots that the party will suspend the (planned) protest.”

Previously, labor activists seemed unpersuadable, digging in their heels in anticipation of a protracted conflict. Sina 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.”

After the shooting incident, they struck a tone of conciliation. Ken Chheanglang, vice president of the national Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, said, “We don’t currently have plans for more protests since the situation has worsened. We don’t want to see more lives lost through violent suppression. We appeal to workers to return to work and earn their wages first, while we decide our next strategy.”