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Cambodian Violence Subsides; Tentative Truce is Brokered

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After weeks of protests crescendoing into violent confrontations in Cambodia, some respite from the chaos, however temporary, seems to be on the horizon. Most factories, previously shuttered for fear of riots, are now fully operational again.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), said, “Most, if not all, factories reopened today [Monday], though only about 50% to 60% of workers came back. Many workers had gone back to their hometowns to avoid trouble, but they should be returning over the next few days.”

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 major protest scheduled for Sunday was cancelled in order to avoid more bloodshed. According to a spokesperson for the political opposition party sponsoring the demonstration, “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. 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.”

But recently, they have 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.”

Major retailers who manufacture their apparel in Cambodia have also expressed concern over the unrest, as well the government’s heavy-handed response, circulating a jointly-signed letter 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.

Besides anxieties over the violence, the other factor contributing to the tentative truce between garment factory workers and the Cambodian government is mounting economic losses created by the paralysis of the garment industry. By at least one estimate, the damage done could total as much as $270 million.

The chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), Van Sou Ieng, contends that Cambodia’s garment industry is hemorrhaging money, both from the loss of clothing sales and the loss of foreign capital being withheld from investors grown wary from the country’s persistent unrest. Ieng calculates that as much as $200 million in clothing sales has been squandered and another $70 million in forfeited investment.

The economic damage is all the more worrisome since Cambodia is heavily dependent upon its garment sector, which accounts for more than 80 percent of its commercial 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.

Also, much of the growth of Cambodia’s garment manufacturing is underwritten by an influx of foreign investment, which has flooded in from Australia, England, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Taiwan and the U.S. China alone sent the nation $121 million in 2013.

While initially peaceful, the protests have devolved into chaotic spasms of violence between throngs of demonstrators and increasingly agitated police.  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 unacceptably 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 frustrated 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 and 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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