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Opposition leader Sam Rainsy addresses garment factory workers in Svay Rieng on Monday
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy addresses garment factory workers in Svay Rieng on Monday. STRINGER

Protest paths converge

Drawing on leader Sam Rainsy’s deep connections to the labour movement, the Cambodia National Rescue Party announced plans to mobilise strikers at factories this morning and lead thousands on marches around Phnom Penh.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said last night that elected lawmakers would be sent to factories to meet workers striking over the garment sector's minimum wage.

“We will invite them to Freedom Park, and in the afternoon, we will march together around the city,” he said.

CNRP lawmaker elect Mu Sochua last night posted on her Twitter account that she would “mobilise” workers in Kampong Chhnang at 7am and party leader Sam Rainsy would do the same at the Sabrina Garment factory in Kampong Speu.

Although opposition demonstrations since July’s election have invariably involved garment workers, only in recent days – as they have begun striking across the country – has the CNRP intensified its focus on them.

The industry’s 400,000-plus workers are considered a demographic that contributed to the CNRP making significant gains at July’s election, which was awarded to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, 68 seats to 55.

Since Monday, Rainsy has made two trips to Svay Rieng province to address workers on strike and toured garment factory districts in the capital as part of the CNRP’s push for Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign or call a snap election.

For Rainsy, homing in on garment workers’ demands is nothing new. After his departure from Funcinpec in 1994 led him to form the Khmer Nation Party, Rainsy set about penetrating the world of state-controlled unions in a rapidly expanding garment sector.

“[Rainsy], with the help of a few union union activists, started to organise local unions to counter unions identified with the ruling party,” note Veasna Nuon and Melisa Serano in their book, Building Unions in Cambodia. “Rainsy, together with Chea Vichea, who became his successor, subsequently led the formation of [FTU] in 1996 to support the opposition’s campaign.”

Rainsy has been quoted as saying that he and Vichea – who was murdered in 2004 – organised the first strikes demanding higher wages.

“Rainsy is an economist and saw that profits from the industry were not helping workers – who were still poor and sick,” said Chea Mony, current FTU president and Vichea’s brother. “In the time since, I have not seen anyone help garment workers as much as Sam Rainsy has.”

The opposition leader’s presence on the factory scene, however, has not been a constant.

He spent years in self-imposed exile to avoid a since-overturned prison sentence, while independent political analyst Chea Vannath said yesterday that the FTU’s creation paved the way for periods of non-political unionism in many factories.

“Later on, they had their own unions and they began disconnecting with politics and trying to stay independent,” she said.

Speaking in Svay Rieng yesterday, however, Rainsy left no doubt in the mind of garment workers that he is very much focused on addressing their grievances.

“All the workers in Phnom Penh will rally in Freedom Park,” he said. “So I call on all of you to keep struggling until your demands for a $160 minimum wage are met.”

Workers have been pouring out of factories in protest since the Ministry of Labour on Tuesday set the new minimum wage at $95, including a health bonus, beginning in April.

The CNRP’s willingness to seize upon the strikes was inappropriate, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday “[The CNRP] is trying everything to get rid of the prime minister. Wages should be separate,” he said. “[The garment workers] are not politically oriented – they’re just striking for better salary.”

The fusion of opposition protests and strikes became more obvious yesterday when the biggest crowd since Sunday turned out to support the CNRP.

Kem Sokha said in Freedom Park last night that an official CNRP campaign to help workers secure a $160 monthly minimum wage will begin today.

Earlier, in Russey Keo district, he continued calls for a snap election, saying CNRP leaders, if elected, would deliver the wage increase workers wanted or stand down.

Leaders also spoke of the involvement of teachers and civil servants in protests.

Rainsy said last night that people should prepare for at least 1 million people demonstrating in Phnom Penh on Sunday.

“This is a giant wave that cannot be stopped.”

But in continuing with the demonstrations, Siphan said, the “will of the majority of Cambodia has been hijacked”. The CNRP, he added, would have to take responsibility if protesters damaged state or public property.

Vannath, the independent political analyst, said the CNRP was playing a “very risky game” trying to stir up emotions among garment workers over wages while the party was holding its own protests.

“I know it’s a noble cause to raise salaries, and I support that cause,” she said. “But I think the timing is not good … and it could become chaotic.”

King Norodom Sihamoni needs to call the two parties together for talks, she added.

“Without the King’s intervention, the two parties have too much ego to make any concession.”

In defence of the CNRP’s actions, however, Sovann said leaders were not inciting workers.

“It’s nothing to do with politics – our platform is just similar to their demands,” he said. “The workers have been demonstrating themselves, they are doing it themselves,” he said.

Adding to that, FTU’s Mony said workers were big fans of Rainsy.

“They know his history dates back to 1996,” he said.

“They want him as prime minister … because they think it will make their living standards better.”

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