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Cambodian May Day Protests Turn Violent; Workers March Globally

Cambodian factory workers, dubbed “May Day” protestors, flooded the streets to demand higher wages and better labor conditions on May 1. The rallies turned violent when civilian auxiliary police started to attack the crowd with clubs, according to onlookers.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Om Sam Ath, a spokesperson for the human rights group Licadho, said that at least five demonstrators were seriously injured. He said, “These security forces seem to be addicted to beating people. Every time they disperse protesters, they beat people, and not one of them has been arrested.”

The Cambodian government has begun a systematic crackdown on labor protests in response to growing anxiety that they will soon pinch the country’s economic foundation: garment manufacturing. Also, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), a nongovernmental trade organization that represents factory owners, requested that the Cambodian government outlaw the worker protests. In a publicly dispatched statement, the organization urged the government to act quickly to restore order. “GMAC is disappointed that the government and local authorities let such illegal action happen and have no effective measures to prevent it. We’d like to appeal to the Ministry of Labor and local authorities to implement their roles in curbing these illegal strikes immediately in order to ensure security and safety for investors and workers who wish to work.”

The central demand of the workers is that the minimum wage immediately rise to $160 per month. For months now, the issue of the minimum wage has been a hotly contested one, and only yielding progress in halting fits and starts. 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.

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Unions, however, have insisted that the minimum wage be increased to $160 per month immediately, promising to continue demonstrations until that demand is finally met. 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.”

Protesters are also demanding  that twenty-one garment workers imprisoned in January as part of a police crackdown on labor agitators be released right away and their charges expunged from the record. The organization also wants the general right to collective bargaining and the freedom of association to be legally recognized.

Adding fuel to the already hot fire, workers now also claim that they were recently denied a one-time $50 bonus that was promised to them by factory owners. GMAC denies that such a promise was ever made to workers. They claim unions fabricated the promise to agitate workers into further demonstrations.

May Day protests organized by labor groups took place all over the world, often comprised of garment factory workers. Workers in Turkey gathered to demand increased minimum wages and expanded rights to collective bargaining and were scattered by police using water cannons and tear gas. Also, thousands of workers in Bangladesh, mostly from garment factories, crowded the streets, screaming for the execution of the owner of the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed one year ago, killing more than 1,100.

The unrest spread beyond the more obvious locations, rising wherever the discontentment of workers remains unassuaged. Hundreds of workers in Honk Kong joined the worldwide protests, petitioning for regulations restricting the hours they can be compelled to work. In other parts of the world, massive protests gathered peacefully, unmolested by vigilant law enforcement authorities. More than 100,000 people blanketed Moscow’s Red Square, less to protest working conditions than to celebrate the right to labor. Thousands of Malaysians assembled in downtown Kuala Lumpur, objecting to a new good and services tax many believe will increase the cost of living. Also, thousands more filled the streets of Manila, criticizing the practice of replacing full-time workers with temporary hires.