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Garment workers stitch clothes at a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in 2014.
Garment workers stitch clothes at a factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in 2014. Pha Lina

Garment sector weighing vote

Eating lunch in the shade inside Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park last week, garment worker Heng Lai Yim, 32, defended her decision to vote for a candidate from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the June 4 commune elections.

“The government will never leave the workers behind,” she said.

Lai Yim said that her experience receiving free medical care through the National Social Security Fund and her belief in the CPP’s commitment to annual wage raises drew her to the ruling party side.

As a garment worker, Lai Yim belongs to a sector representing a crucial voting bloc, employing more than 700,000 workers and producing nearly 80 percent of Cambodia’s total merchandise exports.

While the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has historically presented itself as the party best representing the needs of garment workers pushing for labour reforms and wage increases – under CPP rule, wages have steadily increased in the sector, up from $100 per month in 2014 to $153 per month now, and workers appear to be taking note.

On break outside the factories on Veng Sreng Boulevard on a recent afternoon, workers’ primary political concern was related to pay. Kampong Speu resident Chem Yorm, 48, said that she was pleased with her $153 wage and supported the CPP, adding that Cambodia has come a long way since the days of Pol Pot.

Thirty-three-year-old Khem Sameurng, meanwhile, expressed uncertainty about which direction her vote would go. The resident of Ang Popel commune in Prey Veng province described herself as a Sam Rainsy supporter because of his advocacy for better working conditions, but said that she was no longer sure for which party to vote.

“I’m happy with my wage, it’s increasing,” she said. Sameurng reserved her criticism for Chinese companies operating in Cambodia, which she accused of demanding harder work as wages increased.

But Moeun Tola, of labour rights group Central, said that despite minimum wage hikes, many garment workers remain unhappy with their current working conditions. For his part, Tola speculated that opposition gains at the local level could influence change to controversial laws unpopular with unions, like the 2015 Trade Union Law, which restricts factory-level union registration.

“The local authorities are quite important, because they deal with local people directly,” said Tola, pointing out that commune chiefs choose members of district and provincial councils, which then elect the senate. “If the opposition can be a majority party, it would help to slow down some unconstitutional laws,” he said.

Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions President Yang Sophorn expressed dissatisfaction with current policies, though she said she “trusts” the current government and has voted for CPP candidates in the past. Sophorn’s major concern was about safety, saying many workers currently live in a state of insecurity in poorly policed neighbourhoods, where robbers break down doors and motorbikes are routinely stolen. She also expressed concern about wages.

“I am not fully satisfied with how [the CPP’s] work is – they should continue to increase the wage, and decrease the short-term contract workers,” she said.

Som Aun, leader of the CPP-aligned National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia articulated his 50,000 members’ support for the ruling party. “I don’t really have a major concern regarding the working conditions and living conditions now because we have seen that now the wage of the workers is increasing,” he said. “We participate in [the] CPP because we believe they are giving us peace and development.”

Political analyst Cham Bunthet, who is also an adviser for the Grassroots Democratic Party, still predicted that a high turnout of garment workers would translate to CNRP gains. “They prefer [a] wage increase, better working conditions [and] that has been the agenda of the opposition,” he said. “[If] garment workers turn out to vote in large numbers it will be a landslide change in grassroots politics. The number of opposition commune council leaders will increase dramatically.”

The National Election Committee last week requested employers give workers time off to vote. The Free Trade Union and the Coalition of Free Trade Unions of Women’s Textiles went a step further, asking employers to provide three days of paid leave, as well as loans for travel.

Despite the CNRP’s pledges of support for garment workers, Bunthet said policies like the minimum wage increase serve as enticements to vote for the ruling party.

“What I can say is garment workers don’t want to involve themselves in politics,” he said. “Once their demands are met, they will distance themselves from politics.”

CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann disagreed, saying other issues outside of wages also motivate garment workers. “Everything the CPP cannot solve also affects the workers,” said Sovann, referring to issues like corruption at the local level and environmental concerns. “They are smart enough . . . they can assess the information through social networks, not like in the past 20 years.”

For Chem Sok Kong, 40, a garment worker from Tbong Khmum province attending a May 28 Khmer National Unity Party rally, his support was determined by local issues, not working conditions.

“Currently the problem is corruption, and the commune chief is CPP,” said Sok Kong. “When I have a problem, I approach the commune chief [and] they can only solve my problem if I give them money.”

Whether either party can sway garment worker votes, Tola said that the appeal to workers by the opposition has led to a gradual improvement in conditions, as it puts pressure on the CPP to react. He cited the example in 2012 of the CNRP advocating for a $150 minimum wage, followed by worker demands for a $160 wage the next year. This combined pressure motivated reforms by the CPP. “This is a great benefit,” he said.

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