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Garment workers protest for a wage rise outside Phnom Penh’s Ministry of Labour in December
Garment workers protest for a wage rise outside Phnom Penh’s Ministry of Labour in December. Heng Chivoan

Unions to lead holiday strike

When is a strike not a strike?

That’s a question being asked after union leaders yesterday announced they will inform garment factory owners that their members want to use annual leave days to wage their stay-at-home strike the week after Khmer New Year.

The leaders of eight unions plan to send a letter to the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) this afternoon, asking it to communicate the message to all member factories, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), said yesterday.

“We ask the factory owners to compensate workers [for April 17 to 23],” Thorn said, adding that workers will stay home those days regardless of the response.

Taking annual leave simultaneously falls short of a strike, but keeps pressure on the government and factories, said Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labour program.

“It’s hard to call it a strike,” he said. “But people are communicating their dissatisfaction.”

When asked why unions are requesting the week to count as their annual leave, rather than just call a strike, C.CAWDU vice-president Kong Athit said the action avoided violent government crackdowns.

Workers are entitled to annual leave, said GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo. But factories cannot approve time off for so many employees simultaneously that it would seriously affect production, he added.

“Workers can absolutely [take leave], but it is the prerogative of the factory of whether or not they approve,” Loo said.

The strike looms as unions continue to demand the government set the garment sector’s monthly minimum wage – which is $100 – at $160 and drop charges against 21 jailed protesters and two others.

In a separate action, unions will request permission from the Phnom Penh municipality to gather 10,000 people in the capital on May 1, Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), said yesterday.

Thorn said attendees will begin the event at Freedom Park, then march to the National Assembly.

The same eight unions participating in the stay-at-home strike will send their request to City Hall a month in advance, so the city has plenty of time to respond, Thorn said. However, the event will proceed whether or not City Hall permits it.

City Hall governor Pa Socheatvong placed a ban on gatherings at Freedom Park two weeks ago, which remains in effect until the completion of an investigation into violence that occurred during opposition party demonstrations and the garment worker strike, he said.

The strike and demonstrations ended after fatal crackdowns on January 3 and 4.

City Hall will consider the request, spokesman Long Dimanche said. But he added that public assemblies will not be permitted at Freedom Park until the investigation is complete.

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