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Garment workers sew sweatshirts and check for defects at a factory in Phnom Penh last month
Garment workers sew sweatshirts and check for defects at a factory in Phnom Penh last month. Pha Lina

Stitching up an election

IN MARCH, just months out from the national election, Prime Minister Hun Sen put an end to minimum wage negotiations between unions and factories by intervening to deliver workers an extra $14 per month – $2 more than the government had been poised to offer.

Negotiations on pay hikes weren’t due until 2014 – but an election was around the corner.

Not to be outdone, the CNRP synchronised its policies with what independent and opposition-aligned unions wanted, promising $150 per month if victorious on July 28.

These events indicate, in no uncertain terms, the importance both parties place on the garment vote.

Analysts, labour groups and unions say the industry’s 400,000-plus garment workers – many of them young women – are becoming more politically aware.

For major parties to ignore their interests in an election year, they say, would be folly.

“Our research shows women in garment factories are more interested and knowledgeable when it comes to politics . . . than young women at university,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of Gender and Development for Cambodia.

This was something particularly evident in the way workers had taken an interest in last year’s commune elections, Sopheap added.

“I believe factory workers are more interested in national elections as well.”

Likely reasons for this, she added, were that garment workers were directly exposed to social and economic hardships and, therefore, more desperate to fight for change.

“They’re fed up with broken promises. They’re facing a lot of issues, and they understand their needs,” she said.

“They come to the city and they learn a lot of things – they get it from multiple channels. They can analyse their decisions and . . . they feel very confident.”

Garment workers also hold a lot of leverage in Cambodia’s most globally important industry, said Dave Welsh, country manager for trade-union rights group Solidarity Center/ACILS.

“It’s no mystery this is the largest and most important element of the Cambodian economy,” he said. “It’s made up almost entirely of workers under 30, mostly women.”

These workers, he said, were politically active and becoming more aware of their importance to the economy. “They’re aware of the profit margins they’re creating for major brands . . . and they’re more aware of the leverage they hold.”

Furthermore, Welsh said, they’re likely to vote in huge numbers – many factories close for election weekend, and casting a ballot has become an important part of the ritual of returning home to see their families, he added.

Sowing the seeds
In the tumultuous lead-up to the 1998 election, opposition lawmaker Sam Rainsy, forging his way with the fledgling Khmer Nation Party, made it his mission to appeal to workers in the rapidly expanding garment sector.

“Rainsy’s cleverest move has been to take the lead in supporting factory workers’ demands for improved pay and workplace conditions,” The Post wrote in February 1997. “Lacking substantial financial resources, Rainsy has basically succeeded in engendering increased support for his party while making overseas factory owners pay for it.”

It was a simple approach that no doubt contributed to the later renamed Sam Rainsy Party snaring 15 seats at the 1998 National Election and gaining ground on Funcinpec as Cambodia’s main opposition.

“Even . . . before the grenade attack [in March 1997], Sam Rainsy was the leader in getting garment workers to form unions and fight for their rights,” Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Son Chhay told the Post this week. “Who dared protest back then?”

Whatever the figure, it is one that pales in comparison to the thousands of workers who now routinely take to the streets to demand higher wages and better conditions.

The result of increased dissent, it seems, is both sides of politics paying more attention.

Hun Sen’s rhetoric after delivering the $14 hike to $75 a month in March included reminders of how much the minimum wage had increased under the CPP in the past decade, and a colourful appeal to garment workers for their vote.

But it was the CNRP’s promise of $150 per month, Chhay believed, that had become a “focal point” for workers.

A recent show of support from the Cambodian Confederation of Unions endorsing the CNRP’s figure had vindicated the party’s policy, he added.

“We have asked for $150 for all workers. It’s reasonable – not good enough – but reasonable and acceptable,” Chhay said. “The announcement of support from [CCU president] Rong Chhun was encouraging. The minimum wage talks six months ago really kicked things along.”

Ok Kimhan, a ruling party official, said yesterday that the government still viewed the garment vote as essential to its fortunes in this month’s ballot.

“We will help bring them a better standard of living and higher wages,” he said.

The CPP had strategies to target areas where garment factories were situated – primarily Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kampong Speu – he added.

Voting against the union
This Sunday, thousands of garment workers, who so far have been relatively quiet during the election campaign, will stream into the capital for the first of two rallies organised by the pro-government National Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia.

Som Aun, NACC president, said he openly supported the government because he was sure it would deliver further wage increases and other benefits to his members.

“I have urged workers to vote for the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said, adding that he believed most, in fact, would. “We will have campaigns with more than 10,000 workers on July 14 and 21.”

Government-aligned unions take up the majority of the “space” in garment factories, Solidarity Center’s Welsh said. But he believed it would be a misnomer for the government to think such unions were effectively representing the interests of all workers and their dominance would automatically translate to votes.

“We’re finding that many workers are attending opposition roundtable discussions,” he said.

Chhay, from the CNRP, said he didn’t worry about “the government forming its own unions”.

“The question is whether the unions will protect them and help them get their rights,” he said, adding many were likely to follow the status quo in a factory dominated by a pro-government union than vote differently.

In some factories, however, pro-opposition parties are just as vocal – if not more.

Chhun, the outspoken CCU president, makes no secret of which party he expects his members to vote for – he will distribute about 50,000 pamphlets to workers urging them to support the CNRP.

“Workers believe they will receive about $150 per month when the CNRP wins,” he said. “More and more youths [in factories] understand politics now, and most of them support the CNRP.”

While Chhun is running a well-organised campaign, Free Trade Union president Chea Mony said political parties themselves had yet to make their presence felt in the form of raucous campaigning outside factories.

“I see parties have campaigned along the roads in Phnom Penh and in some provinces, but they have not really focused on garment workers yet,” he said.

Even Wing Star Shoes in Kampong Speu – where a ceiling collapsed in May, killing two workers – has been bereft of political campaigners promising workers better conditions.

Mao Sisong, the factory’s administrative manager, said there had been no campaigns on the streets outside.

“It’s good,” he said. “We don’t prohibit them to campaign with whichever party they choose, but they must do this out of working hours”.

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation and its affiliate, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said he wasn’t sure to what extent workers were involving themselves in political campaigns.

“I’ve told my members not to campaign during work hours,” he said. “And if they participate outside of work, they must not use my union’s name – we’re independent.”

Increasingly, however, many workers have grown politically active and begun campaigning for their party of choice in their own time, Mony said.

“They have been joining campaigns . . . and when I listen to the radio, I often hear workers calling in to appeal to their friends or other workers to vote for the CNRP for better wages.”

And though garment workers might not be donning party caps and polo shirts en masse, the CNRP’s Chhay believes “a movement for change” is occurring.

“By joining trade unions, they’ve learned more about their rights and how to protest.

“We’ve supported workers all these years,” he said, referring back to Rainsy’s 1990s work. “But once again, the workers’ future relies on the opposition.”

It sounds like political rhetoric – the type to be expected at this stage of election campaigning – but to some extent, the opposition’s ability to represent itself as the party that will deliver workers the $150 per month wage they want seems to have garnered them more support.

“I will vote for the CNRP because they will give us higher wages,” said Rithy, a garment worker in the capital. “I think workers’ worries will be over if the CNRP wins the election.”

That victory – as highly unlikely as it seems – would rely in no small way on the garment vote and how daring workers are prepared to be.

Kimhan, from the CPP, believes few will be so desperate to turn away from a party he believes has delivered – and will continue to deliver.

“The CPP has clear policies for workers such as increasing wages and benefits and improving their living standards – the kind of things we have done before,” he said.

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