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Tai Yang Garment Factory workers exit the factory compound in Kandal province.
Tai Yang Garment Factory workers exit the factory compound in Kandal province. PHA LINA

Sewing up support back home

Chandy, a 23-year-old garment worker in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, doesn’t believe the vote she cast for the opposition at last month’s election carried any special significance. After all, it was just one vote out of millions.

But when Chandy made the pilgrimage home to Prey Veng province’s Preah Sdach district for the ballot, her new-found interest in politics, roused by tough working conditions, inspired
others to join her in supporting the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“The reason I voted for the CNRP was because I knew their seven points of policy would help me,” she said yesterday outside her modest single-room home close to her factory. “And because I’m a garment worker, my parents voted for the CNRP as well – it was to help me.”

The Post spoke to approximately a dozen workers yesterday in Ang Snuol district and nearby Por Sen Chey district in Phnom Penh, where a significant number of the country’s 500-plus factories are situated.
While these interviews can’t be considered representative of the whole industry, answers given suggested workers are politically aware, engaged with issues that affect them and went to the polls genuinely believing the CNRP could improve conditions on the factory floor. But beyond that, they went home and persuaded others.

CNRP lawmaker and spokesman Yim Sovann believes garment workers were significant in the opposition clinching the majority of seats in Prey Veng and drastically increasing its numbers in the National Assembly.

Workers, he said, had been attracted to the CNRP’s straightforward policy platform – which centred on a $150 minimum wage – and had returned to their home provinces from places like Phnom Penh and Kandal spreading the word.

“You can see their salaries are very low compared to other countries,” he said. “There’s no guarantee of a decent living, that’s why we came up with this.”

While encouraging others back home to vote to help them, garment workers had also spread other details of the CNRP’s platform.

“Everyone in the family can benefit from our policy,” he said, referring to financial schemes for farmers and the elderly.

Unions and labour-rights groups also believe garment workers contributed in no small way to the CNRP’s rise, both in factory-filled provinces and across the country.

Kong Athit, vice-president of the independent Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said that in the past five years garment workers have become more educated about their rights and have seen a decline in working conditions.

“And I think they do [have a lot of influence on their families],” he said, referring to workers returning home to the provinces. “They are the driving economy of the family, so … they have power.”

Chandy never used to talk about politics with her family. But the CNRP’s simple promise of higher wages won her over, she said during her lunch break yesterday.

A fellow worker at the same factory, Sok Neang, 20, is a native of Ang Snuol district and cast one of many votes that helped the CNRP win a majority of seats in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s province.

“I chose the CNRP because … my wage is not enough for me to support my family. I do not get $150, but I would have done if the CNRP had won,” she said.

Sok Neang added that all of her friends had also voted for the opposition.

For others, however, family traditions remain strong and they followed their parents at the polling stations rather than taking the lead.

One worker, 27, who didn’t give her name, said she voted for the CPP in 2008 and did so again in Kampong Cham province this year.

“I followed my parents because they asked me to vote for the CPP a long time ago,” she said. “I trust my parents – that is why I always follow them.”

While other workers voted for the CPP because they said they loved the party, others, including Sok Neang, spoke of a generational change in political alliances within factories that traditionally have been dominated by government-aligned unions.

“My older colleagues all voted for the CPP,” she said. “And my parents voted for the CPP. I just told them I love the CNRP because it will help us have a better life.”

While many have spoken of the role social media networks played in boosting the CNRP vote, Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun believes the informal garment worker network was more important.

“I think the workers factor is number one, followed by the youth,” he said.

While that’s certainly not a view shared by everyone, Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS, believes many garment workers are politically engaged enough to know they are being “shafted” and would have voted for change.

Furthermore, he said, they hold considerable leverage at a time when “record profits” are being made.

Back in Kandal, Chandy and her friends don’t see themselves as particularly influential. They just want better conditions and more money.

“We were disappointed when we heard the CNRP didn’t win,” she said. “We tried.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MELISSA MCMORRAN

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