Even though a consortia of unions cancelled massive protests planned for March, the rhetorical heat between Cambodian workers and factory owners continues to rise. Labor leaders have ratcheted up pressure on factory owners by demanding yet another increase in the minimum wage, also criticizing the government for its inactivity.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) held meetings of its top officials last week in Phnom Penh, gathered from Asia and Europe, to discuss new strategies to achieve an increase in the minimum wage without provoking further violence. Jeffrey Vogt, legal advisor for the ITUC on human rights, said, “The trade unions from the Southeast Asia region are all deeply concerned with the developments in this country…Representatives from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Fiji and Singapore…are supporting the Cambodian trade unions in their struggle.”
Other labor representatives chimed in with both their support and their frustration. Jotika Sharma, publicity officer for the Fiji Trade Union Congress, said, “We are very concerned that the government has repeatedly interfered and prevented workers from assembling peacefully. In my country, Fiji, which is also ruled by a military dictatorship, workers are very well aware of this issue.” Also, Mikung Ryu, international director of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, declaimed, “In the beginning of this year, people in Korea were very shocked because workers asking for higher minimum wage were arrested, injured and killed. Especially in front of the Korean company Yakjin, during this clash, the government deployed military soldiers.”
Just recently, unions cancelled a boycott of their garment factories planned for March 12, that was scheduled to last for four days and involve tens of thousands of protesters. 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.
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.
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. Pav Sina, the president of the Collective Union of Movement 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 unions have found publicly expressed support from both major Western brands and retailers as well as the U.S. government. Recently, a group of retailers which manufacture their apparel in Cambodia voiced 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.
The U.S. government also denounced the Cambodian authorities for the use of violence to suppress the demonstrations. 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.
Despite all the political unrest, Cambodia’s apparel exports continue to surge, 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.