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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Workers find themselves at center of political tug-of-war

Workers find themselves at center of political tug-of-war

9-Hun-Sen.jpg
9-Hun-Sen.jpg

TANG CHHIN SOTHY/ AFP

Prime Minister Hun Sen makes a speech during the inauguration of a mosque in Phnom Penh on May 15. Hun Sen and his political opposition have for the first time targeted Cambodia’s blue-collar workers as key assets in the upcoming national elections scheduled for July 27.

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etter pay and working conditions for Cambodia’s industrial workers have become the centerpiece of party platforms ahead of July 27 national polls as the country’s politicians seek for the first time to tap into a vast voter pool they had previously ignored, party officials and election monitors say.

The leaders of the country’s three main political parties all went to the workers on May Day this year, appealing to garment factory employees and dockworkers alike for their ballot.

“If you like my leadership, vote for the CPP,” Prime Minister Hun Sen told hundreds of workers gathered at the Sihanoukville port, promising job security if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party was returned to power and calling on factory owners in the country’s strike-prone garment sector to treat their workers like “partners for life.”

Elsewhere, opposition politicians with the Sam Rainsy, Human Rights and Norodom Ranariddh parties were touting higher wages and labor rights in exchange for support in what many observers say will be a one-sided election favoring the CPP.

But despite being the clear favorites, Hun Sen’s embrace of the working classes signals a change in political strategy and marks the rise of industrial workers as a powerful constituent, observers say.

“This is the first time they’ve done this – they see opportunity in the growing number of workers. Before their numbers were small and the workers did not attract the attention of the political parties,” said Hang Puthea, executive director of the Cambodian election monitor Nicfec.

“It is important for the parties to attract workers because their numbers have increased by so much,” he told the Post.

“Each party believes that if they can attract those workers, the parents of those workers who live in the countryside and their friends will also vote for that party,” he added.

A simple calculation reveals exactly how big the worker vote could be: the garment sector alone employs an estimated 350,000 people, each supporting family at home that could multiply the total voter strength by three, five or even ten times, depending on the size of each employee’s family and circle of friends.

Some 8.1 million voters have been registered so far.

The total number of industrial workers is thought to be more than 500,000, monitors say.

“If 50,000 votes can win a seat in parliament, then half a million votes will swing 10 seats,” Puthea said.

That is no small number for Cambodia’s opposition trying to claw back some power from the CPP, which looks set to be able to form a government on its own this year, shedding a coalition government agreement that has been in place since the early 1990s.

All three minor parties are trading on Cambodia’s rising cost of living to give them the leverage they need to swing the workers’ vote.

Double-digit inflation has hurt most the country’s urban workers who during the past year have found themselves priced out of many staple goods.

Aside from promised wage hikes, the opposition has vowed to end pricing monopolies over fuel and curb living costs.

“If you vote for the CPP, you will get only one sarong, but if you vote for Sam Rainsy you will get another $20 [wage] increase,” Sam Rainsy, leader of his self-named party, told some 3,000 garment workers gathered at his party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on International Labor Day.

Meanwhile, Norodom Ranariddh’s party spokesman Muth Chantha reminded workers that the prince, who remains in exile amid a host of legal problems, attracted investment to Cambodia, creating jobs.

All the pre-election wooing, however, has done nothing to convince labor activists that party leaders have their interests at heart.

Chea Mony, who took over the reins of Cambodia’s largest labor group, the Free Trade Union, in 2004, told the Post that “political parties have been cheating workers since 1993.”

“Every song they sing is sweet,” he said, urging workers not to be lured into a false sense of hope by the rhetoric.

“Consider each party’s policy platform on labor issues before deciding which one to support in the elections,” he said.

Nicfec’s Puthea also said trying to win the workers’ vote was a bit of shrewd international spin-making on the part of the parties.

“If any party can convince the workers to vote for them, it shows that the party supports international labor rights and raises its profile” outside of Cambodia,” he said.

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