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Thousands of Cambodian Garment Workers Prepare for More Protests

In effort to advocate for a “living wage” thousands of Cambodian factory workers will skip work, planning to stay at home for seven days.

The demonstration is organized by a consortia of eighteen unions, led by the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). 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.

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 CCC is also asking 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.

Labor leaders in Cambodia have become frustrated with the lack of a government response to their requests, and say they have exhausted the more diplomatic opportunities for reaching a resolution. Just recently, unions cancelled a boycott of their garment factories planned for March 12, that was scheduled to last 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.

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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.

Union heads, however, are disappointed with the effects of pressure from Western brands and retailers. Athit Kong, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said, “Diplomatic pressure from brands is not enough anymore. It is high time brands take their responsibility and use their buying power to take concrete steps and tackle the issue which lies at the heart of our protests: a living wage.”