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Cambodian Union Leader: ‘Sometimes the Intimidation is Scary’

As the three-week lockdown in Phnom Penh lifted late last week and the city laid down stringent conditions for a reopening, many areas in the “red zones” of Cambodia’s capital city continue to be at high risk.

Referred to as the February 20 infection, regarding when the B.1.1.7 Covid-19 variant was first seen in Cambodia, the country has been heavily impacted by this wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with 114 deaths and 18,179 infections as of Friday. It is a shock to a country that negotiated through 2020 deftly, with a total of only 364 cases and no deaths.

The lockdown of the past weeks has affected thousands of factory workers who live and work in areas around Phnom Penh, especially in the Pur Senchey and Meanchey districts with strict containment measures. Many have suffered a lack of food availability amid uncertainty about their work situations.

Kong Athit, president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), told Sourcing Journal that while factory closures and lockdown are immediate concerns for the $7 billion garment industry, the quest for a greater awareness among workers continues.

Sourcing Journal: While Covid-19 has disrupted work at factories, how are workers coping?

Kong Athit: Many factories are still located in suburbs of Phonm Penh, which is why a lot of labor is impacted. Color coded areas have been the focus, with red zones being in complete lockdown. In April, 60 factories in the yellow zones opened after a two-week shutdown. They opened at a 60 percent capacity, as workers living in red were not allowed to work and those in the yellow zones faced severe travel restrictions.

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There are many issues to be faced–food supply is a problem as workers in the red zones cannot access supplies. For workers who are suspended it is a huge challenge for money.

For others, it is a problem getting paid because banks or administration staff were on leave.

For those who continue to work, the threats of the virus at factories is there.

 SJ: Are many workers returning to their hometowns as production slows down?

K.A: Many of the workers have been looking for jobs in smaller sweatshops, some have run home to the areas they are from because they are scared of Covid, some have found work in other sectors–it is quite messy. Many find work in different factories.

SJ: Some workers say that Covid is being used as an excuse for change or letting them go?

K.A: Yes, in some cases. They fire some unions saying it is due to Covid and lay off some workers whom they don’t want to keep or if they want to shut down some part of the factories. There is also the Covid impact, so it is a limitation and we cannot protest.

But the power is a little more on the side of the employers.

Employers don’t need to protest to get what they want—and workers lose some power because they are paid. That gives the opportunity and advantage to employers.

SJ: Some manufacturers complain that there are too many unions in a factory, sometimes seven to eight unions in a single factory and the power is tilted to workers?

K.A: Let me put that in context. We are not limited that one factory should have only one union. This is the right of the workers to have more. But if there are more, and they are independent unions, it doesn’t matter. By independent, I mean not being influenced by the employer or being paid by the employer in some way, and unions that are not in the collective labor interest in some way. That is not the case in Cambodia.

SJ: Has this resulted in a lot of clashes in past years?

K.A: Yes, in a small way and in a bigger way.  In a smaller way in that there is day-to-day fighting within each factory, and in a bigger way annually during wage negotiations.

SJ: Does the number of unions in a factory sometimes scare off global brands and retailers from the industry in Cambodia?

K.A: Let me put this in a very friendly way. To some extent, the small brands maybe yes. But many brands are not scared of too many unions. They just live with it.

But in fact, the brand has some power over the supplier. If they want to participate in building the transparency environment, they can. With their financial power they can work with the supplier and not just live with the situation—they can make it better.

SJ: But workers are increasingly becoming aware of their rights in the last few years?

K.A: Yes, when workers become aware that changes everything and they are able to navigate their way forward. Like in the recent U.S. elections people found a way to own their own destiny because they were aware.

The challenge is that 65 percent workers are not aware, and they don’t care.

If we talk about independent unions those are not even 20 percent. There were some 800,000 workers in the garment industry before Covid, so you see how much the gap we need to fill in to empower workers.

This is the job of the unions to raise awareness and to encourage and motivate. In the last 20 years we have done whatever we can, but we have to do more.

SJ: As a union leader now in 2021, what is your biggest concern?

K.A: The biggest question is how can we wake up consciousness in the majority of workers to own the union. And the collaboration across the country to find the democratic voice and genuine solidarity–not top down, but with real involvement.

If we don’t manage to make progress in this area, it does not matter what kind of agreements we win, first we have to have the necessary tools for negotiation.

To me now, the challenge is not so much about how to negotiate with the other side but how to organize our side.

SJ: Meanwhile, what have the biggest achievements been?

K.A: I would say one of the biggest achievements is the growing of minimum wage every year, that is absolutely undeniable. Earlier it was every five years. Now we are pushing the government to start a social security scheme. We have a war in the wage council and the social security council.

The other important thing is that we have loyal independent unions that can negotiate a single factory situation, and help in solving the problems of workers and have a platform. We are able to bring up the voice of the workers.

SJ: Even after these many years there are still few women trade union leaders. Why?

K.A: I would categorize it into two reasons. First there is the personal perception, which is in practical terms–both men and women are interested in being the leader, but they have other things to consider,  ‘I have a family, maybe too risky for me.’ Others give up working.

Second, the men tend to be more outspoken. It doesn’t mean women are weaker, but just that the context of the platform has provided more advantage to men who tend to be more outspoken, and that gives them the opportunity.

SJ: You were a garment worker yourself before becoming a trade union leader. Was it threatening for you?

K.A: I started as a garment worker in 1998, and worked for two and a half years before I got terminated for union activity. When I was young it was not an issue, although yes, sometimes the intimidation is scary.

Luckily, I still survive.