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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - GMAC sees surge in strikes

Garment factory workers hold placards during a strike at the gates of the Ministry of Labour
Garment factory workers hold placards during a strike at the gates of the Ministry of Labour earlier this year, demanding better working conditions. Kimberley McCosker

GMAC sees surge in strikes

The number of strikes at Cambodia’s garment factories during the first three months of 2015 rose nearly 74 per cent from the same period last year, according to the nation’s garment manufacturers.

In its report covering this year’s first quarter, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) counted 40 strikes at garment factories in Cambodia between January and March. The number shows a substantial rise from 2014, when GMAC recorded 23 strikes in that timeframe.

“Last year, the violent demonstrations just ended and everyone was on the alert,” GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo said yesterday, accounting for the sharp upwards curve of strikes.

Loo and Moeun Tola, head of the labour department for the Community Legal Education Center, both pointed back to the military shootings at a protest supporting a nationwide garment industry strike turned violent on January 3, 2014, culminating in the shooting deaths of at least five protesters. A subsequent ban on public demonstration made it difficult for any strikes to be organised.

But strikes in the Kingdom’s garment industry picked back up, largely because of poor communication between employers and workers, said Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union.

“I think this is the common problem for [everyone] related to industrial relations,” Athit said yesterday. “The employer, the union and the government still have very little involvement with [each other].”

GMAC’s study found that 70 per cent of the strikes involved unions not registered at the factory at which they took place, 8 per cent were carried out by non-union workers and none of the strikes were carried out legally.

But holding a strike deemed legal by the government is close to impossible, said Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group the Solidarity Center. Employers often refuse to collectively bargain with unions or workers, he said, and government officials are regularly slow to move on workers’ complaints, effectively stalling most attempts to strike legally.

“It’s a bit rich [to call strikes illegal],” Welsh said yesterday. “If the other parties refuse to participate, they can just kind of hold the unions hostage.”

Also noted in GMAC’s report is a belief that some of the strikes were held to enhance a union’s reputation or, as Loo said in an interview yesterday, to “flex their muscles”.

But Tola said that from what he has seen, the strikes have all appeared to have a purpose.

“What we observe so far, is all the strike demands are related mostly to wages and the conditions inside the factory,” Tola said.

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