Will Baxter and Heng Chivon
THOUSANDS of garment workers took to the streets yesterday as part of a promised mass strike to protest against the minimum wage, though industry and union estimates differed as to the scale of the stoppage.
Kong Athit, secretary general of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said yesterday evening that more than 68,000 workers from 53 factories had joined the strike.
Another 52,000 workers, he said, had been prevented by their employers from taking part.
“This shows our success,” Kong Athit said. “I expect that there will be even more than this on the second day of the strike.”
But Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, offered a significantly lower estimate.
“20,000 was the number of workers that did not come to work, but this did not represent the total number of workers that were striking,” he said. “Probably 8,000 or 9,000 at best were striking.”
Loo noted that he could only speak of GMAC members. All exporting factories must join GMAC, though there are a number of factories that work as sub-contractors and do not belong to the association.
Ten demonstrators were temporarily detained yesterday – seven in Kandal province and three in Phnom Penh – but for the most part, the strikes proceeded peacefully and without incident.
“We’ll keep watching them, but we won’t suppress the demonstrations if they conduct them through the law and without violence,” Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday. He guessed that roughly 25,000 workers had taken part in the strike, but said this was an unofficial estimate.
The workers have taken to the streets to protest against a July decision by government and industry representatives that set the minimum wage at $61 per month.
Organisers have called for an increase to $93.
Addressing a crowd of more than 800 workers outside Meanchey district’s Pine Great Factory yesterday morning, CLC president Ath Thun said employees had pitched in from meagre salaries to purchase food, water and equipment for the strike.
“We are happy to see them cooperate with each other in order to demand more wages and benefits from their employers,” Ath Thun said.
“The employers don’t know the difficulties the workers face.”
Workers in Phnom Penh, Kandal, Kampong Speu, Kampong Chhnang and Svay Rieng provinces took part in the strikes yesterday, according to Moeun Tola, head of the labour programme at the Community Legal Education Centre. Ken Loo said 19 GMAC factories were affected by the strikes, though in some cases the work stoppage was marginal.
“If you’re talking about factories where production was stopped, you’re talking about under 10 factories,” Loo said. GMAC will advise the affected factories today to seek court injunctions declaring the strikes illegal and requiring strikers to return to work within 48 hours. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NGUON SOVAN AND JAMES O’TOOLE