Arriving in bursts of 20, 30 and 50 at a time, thousands of garment workers filled Freedom Park yesterday afternoon, shouting slogans and holding aloft cardboard sheets bearing the figure “$160” hand-written in marker, amid a quickly growing national strike.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) reacted to the fluid situation earlier in the day, “strongly" suggesting its 473 member factories close until Monday in order to avoid possible strike-related violence and property damage, while the Ministry of Labour invited members of six unions to discuss a resolution at an emergency meeting today.
The explosion of strikers came two days after the Ministry of Labour announced it would raise Cambodian garment workers’ minimum wage – which now stands at $80, including a health bonus – to $95, rather than the $160 workers and unions demanded.
Injae Garment Co Ltd in Russey Keo district closed its doors after receiving GMAC’s recommendation to shut down for the week, owner Nam-Shik Kang said in an email. Closing the factory will mean “big damage” to the factory’s finances, he wrote.
While none of his employees went on strike, Kang’s email said that a few hundred people gathered outside Injae “with [a] microphone and stones” and made threats yesterday morning.
Him Phalla, administrative manager at Huey Chuen (Cambodia) Corp Ltd in Dangkor district, said the factory shut down upon receiving GMAC’s email yesterday morning. He remains unsure whether it will be able to open on Monday. “I am not sure yet whether they can start work on Monday, [we might] suspend production longer than that, depending on the situation,” Phalla said.
The approximately 20,000 demonstrators at Freedom Park yesterday doubled the numbers seen at most Cambodia National Rescue Party demonstrations this week.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who met with striking workers in Kampong Speu and Svay Rieng this week, said the cohesion of the garment strike and ongoing CNRP demonstrations will likely prove a boon to the opposition, whose ongoing rallies enters its 13th straight day today.
“The weight of workers is very important,” Rainsy said in an interview last night. “Now, the workers have thrown their full weight into support for the CNRP, so you can imagine this will have a big impact.”
Rainsy has on multiple occasions encouraged garment workers to remain on strike until they receive the wage they demand. Workers will not likely receive any wages for the duration of the strike, but with factories receiving a high volume of orders for springtime apparel right now and the potential for some Cambodian companies to absorb China’s shrinking garment output, Rainsy said, factory owners will probably find it advantageous to pay the wage hike, rather than miss out on huge profit potential.
“The timing of the strike is a very good one, because the demand of garment production in Cambodia is strong and the factories are eager to … meet the demand,” Rainsy said.
Advantageous as the strike may be to the opposition’s cause, party members and lawmakers had provided strikers only philosophical support and had not “mobilised” workers during visits to factory areas yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said.
“We do not mobilise the workers. We just showed up to support what the workers demand,” he said. “They came to Freedom Park themselves.”
FTU figures put the number of striking factories at more than 200. According to GMAC figures, 240 factories within a 40 kilometre radius of Phnom Penh have been affected and temporarily shuttered operations.
A letter from seven union groups – the CUMW, FTU, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the Coalition of Cambodian Unions (CCU), the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), the Worker Friendship Union Federation (WFUF) and the Independent Youth Trade Union (IYTU) – addressed to GMAC executive committee chairman Van Sou Ieng and forwarded to the Labour Ministry yesterday claimed that nearly 250,000 people would join the strike if their demands are not met within a week.
“If you cannot meet all demands within one week, the unions and workers in every [garment] factory in the country will join demonstrations,” the letter says.
In addition to an industry-wide minimum wage of $160, the letter demanded $3 for meals each day for all workers, justice for people shot during a November clash between police and striking SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd workers, and four other points.
C.CAWDU president Ath Thorn said the seven-member coalition will consider ending the strike if wages are raised to $160, but more demands may come out of the woodwork as the strike continues.
“If there’s no progress, demands will get bigger and bigger,” Thorn said yesterday afternoon.
GMAC secretary general Ken Loo has repeatedly said that most Cambodian garment factories cannot afford to pay an immediate $80 wage hike, while union leaders and labour rights advocates in the Kingdom have said they believe factories exaggerate the financial impact wage increases would pose.
In a press briefing last night, senior GMAC representatives and a number of factory owners showed videos of scores of young men and women forcing their way into two garment factories and knocking down a gate and security barrier.
“They are outsiders – they are not our workers,” one factory owner said.
Kong Sang, GMAC’s first deputy chairman, said factories are willing to accept the strike, which was declared without any of the prerequisite steps outlined in Cambodia’s labour law, but he asked alleged agitators to respect the rights of people who want to work.
GMAC representatives said they did not know whether workers had been forced to go to Freedom Park.
The rhetoric at Freedom Park was decidedly more labour-oriented yesterday, as it appeared that a majority of demonstrators were associated with the strike. Strikers came from all over Phnom Penh and outside the capital.
“Workers in Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Cham, Kampong Speu and Kandal … and almost everywhere in Phnom Penh protested and rallied at Freedom Park,” said Pav Sina, president of union CUMW.
Huo Tong, a garment worker from Kandal province at yesterday’s rally, placed much of the blame for the strike on Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I want to ask [Prime Minister] Hun Sen why the government will not increase the minimum salary to $160 for workers,” Tong said. “If [Hun Sen] does not find a way, he must step down.”
C.CAWDU president Thorn said unions involved with the strike are considering bussing workers from other provinces into Phnom Penh for the Freedom Park rallies.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL