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Free the 23: meet the global campaigners supporting Cambodia’s garment workers

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Free the 23: meet the global campaigners supporting Cambodia’s garment workers

Since the government imposed a ban on public assembly following garment worker strikes that turned violent on January 2 and 3, there hasn’t been much visible protest action on the streets of Phnom Penh. Rights advocates, however, have continued campaigning for the lifting of the minimum wage to $160 per month and, critically, for the release of 23 (though two have been bailed) detainees arrested during January’s protests. But whatever happens in Phnom Penh following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s suggestion that he will lift the ban on public assembly earlier this week, human rights organisations and trade union movements such as IndustriALL Global Union have helped spread the Free the 23 campaign worldwide. Emily Wight reports. Illustration by David Pinho.

Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN).
Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN). PHOTO SUPPPLIED

“We all live in a global village, from Africa to Cambodia,” said 65-year-old Harry Willard Mamba over email from Malawi this week, when asked why the organisation for which he is co-ordinator, the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN), had pledged their support to Cambodian garment workers.

He said that the situation reminded him of the repressive regime of Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Malawi between 1961 and 1994, in which an estimated 6,000 people were killed, tortured and jailed without trial. Willard Mamba said: “There doesn’t appear to be real democracy in Cambodia. It reminds us of the one-party rule we experienced here in Malawi during the reign of Hastings Kamuzu Banda. We didn’t have much freedom of expression, free media, and so on.”

LUPPEN’s executive committee in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, sent an online message of solidarity to Cambodian garment workers and their families, as well as a letter to Hun Sen’s government to free the 21 detainees who remain in jail. He said: “We hope that our small gesture will give strength to the jailed activists.”

Willard Mamba, who travelled with LUPPEN to Lesotho, a small landlocked nation surrounded by South Africa, in 2009 to campaign for economic justice there, said: “As an organisation that works for the urban poor, we wanted to join hands in solidarity with the Cambodian rights activists so that they should be freed as soon as possible.”

Michele O’Neil speaks at a rally in Australia.
Michele O’Neil speaks at a rally in Australia. PHOTO SUPPLIED

While Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government is hardly sympathetic to unions at home, let alone abroad – earlier this month they announced a wide-ranging investigation into alleged corruption that domestic trade leaders called a ‘political witchhunt’ – there are plenty who are.

Speaking on the phone from her Melbourne office, Michele O’Neil, national secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA), said: “Our union has had a long term connection with the Cambodian unions.”

The TCFUA, which is part of IndustriALL Global Union, has visited Cambodia several times, holding meetings with trade union officials and visiting factories to observe conditions.

Back in Australia, action has also been taken to demonstrate solidarity with garment workers in Cambodia – all of it supported by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the umbrella body which represents affiliated unions across the country. As well as circulating email petitions, they have held protests outside the Cambodian embassy in Canberra; a particularly symbolic demonstration was held on January 23, when people sat on the ground with sewing machines, wearing bullet-proof vests. A coffin was also paraded behind these activists, to symbolise the deaths – of which there were at least four – of the protesters earlier in the month.

On February 10, a Global Day of Action for Cambodia’s garment workers organised by support groups across the world, Australia’s unions returned to the embassy to deliver more letters to the ambassador.

As well as unions, community groups and individual members of the public, some church groups have also become involved, said O’Neil. “Many people were shocked about the news coverage of the protests back in January, the deaths of the workers, and the arrest of the 23 others. They wanted to be part of a campaign to support the workers and unions in Cambodia.”

Labour Behind the Label’s Samantha Maher.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Labour Behind the Label’s Samantha Maher. PHOTO SUPPLIED

You wouldn’t find the UK’s Embassy of Cambodia unless you were specifically looking for it. Tucked away on a residential street in London’s northwest, it’s a good twenty minutes’ walk from the nearest underground station.

But when campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label, People and Planet and War on Want, as well as local trade unions, held demonstrations outside the embassy recently, they spread the word to tourists en route to get their visas to make up for the lack of attention they might have received from passersby if they were in central London.

Samantha Maher, who works at Labour Behind the Label, said: “We definitely got the attention of people coming to the embassy because they were travelling to Cambodia. People want to visit the country as a tourist destination, but they need to understand that things go on in Cambodia that they should be aware of.”

People should care, according to Maher, because the West is strongly implicated in the situation. She said: “All of us around the world are connected through these supply chains – all of us wear clothes. In countries like Cambodia, the garment industry has real potential to bring people out of poverty, but it’s only ever going to do that if it pays people properly, and if it provides fair conditions.”

The multinational companies that own the garment factories are beginning to wake up to global action, Maher added. “These companies care about what their consumers think – they don’t want to have a bad reputation.”

In terms of the connection with garment workers and the detainees in Cambodia, what use will global solidarity have? Maher said: “One of the things that happens when you’re engrossed in such a personal tragedy is the feeling of isolation and powerlessness you have. If you have solidarity, it doesn’t take away the grief but it definitely contributes to making these people feel like they’ve done nothing wrong.”

Belgian demonstrators posed with sewing machines in a symbolic gesture.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Belgian demonstrators posed with sewing machines in a symbolic gesture. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Jessie van Couwenberghe and her colleagues at the Belgian trade union ACV found an unusual way to support garment workers on the other side of the world earlier this month.

Van Couwenberghe said: “We put a few sewing machines on the ground, with people posing as garment workers sewing one dollar. This attracted attention – national TV was there, and quite a lot of people walking past stopped to find out what was going on, wanting to sign our petition to the ambassador.”

Speaking on Skype from Brussels earlier this week, she said: “I think in this globalised world, what’s happening in Phnom Penh is no longer hidden from us, because of the press and because of people travelling, because of civil organisations working together. We’re all in this together – the current crisis is affecting people all over the world.”

For some years now, ACV has had a close relationship with the Cambodia Labour Confederation (CLC), van Couwenberghe said. As soon as they were notified of what happened in Phnom Penh on January 3, they got to work on what they could do to offer support. The ACV contacted the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Cambodian ambassador in Brussels to ask for a meeting. They also spread the word to other trade unions in the country as well as the Clean Clothes Campaign, a support group for garment workers, and on February 10, about 150 people gathered in front of the Cambodian embassy in Brussels, and some used the sewing machines.

Van Couwenberghe added: “I think people are becoming more aware that in the countries where clothes are made, the working conditions are really bad, so at the moment it’s quite easy to ask people for support.”

Some have been more easily persuaded than others, however: van Couwenberghe said that the Cambodian ambassador in Brussels wasn’t interested to talk through their concerns. “It was quite disappointing – but we went to see our Minister of

Foreign Affairs again, and that was a bit more satisfying because he promised that some of our demands would be handed over to the Belgian ambassador to attend a meeting in Phnom Penh,” she said.

While the union will always campaign for lifting the minimum wage for Cambodia’s garment workers, van Couwenberghe said that at the moment, the priority is the release of the 21 people who are still detained.

Eva Pfannerstill volunteered in Cambodia five years ago.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Eva Pfannerstill volunteered in Cambodia five years ago. PHOTO SUPPLIED

When Eva Pfannerstill, a 24 year old student in chemical biology, found a Facebook group of Germans in solidarity with Cambodian garment workers, she immediately wanted to join in. Having spent 12 months volunteering in Kampong Speu five years ago, she thought of the friends she has since kept up contact with. “I love Cambodia and it’s important for me to know what’s going on there, so I regularly follow the political news of the country”, she said.

Pfannerstill joined a national campaign that organised protests in front of the Cambodian embassy in Berlin, as well as a Cambodian Space Project concert that raised US $1,200 for the families of the protesters who were shot. The group also started a petition to the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU commission, demanding action. She persuaded two members of parliament from the German Green Party, Uwe Kekeritz and Beate Müller-Gemmeke, to write a letter to the Cambodian ambassador, supporting the workers’ request for a minimum salary of $160. Up until now, however, there’s been no reply.

Pfannerstill said: “As long as Western garment companies still prefer ordering from the cheapest factories instead of factories that grant fair wages and occupational safety, and as long as Western governments always put their economic interests first and human rights last, there is a lot we can do here in order to gain global justice.”

She added: “The German government just increased its development aid to Cambodia by 50 per cent. It’s worth considering if the money is really helping the people.”

South Koreans protest for workers’ rights.
South Koreans protest for workers’ rights. PHOTO SUPPLIED

South Korea
When garment workers from a Cambodian factory met with the Korean Metal Workers’ Union (KMWU) as part of an IndustriALL meeting in Seoul last year, Hyewon Chong, executive director of the union’s international department, couldn’t help but sympathise with their plight. The female Cambodian workers told the meeting that a thousand police troops raided a strike rally in May last year, injuring several women and causing two pregnant women to miscarry.

Chong said: “Despite such intimidation, the women showed great courage in not giving up. I could feel their courage, their struggle, their aspirations and their grief.”

KMWU then started mobilising solidarity action to support Cambodian garment workers in their call for a minimum wage of $160. Following the violence and detainment of the 23 garment workers in January, Chong attended two protest rallies outside the Cambodian embassy in Seoul, and one in front of the Korean Foreign Ministry. KMWU also brought up the Cambodian situation at the National Assembly, and sent a letter of protest to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Chong.

The campaign from garment workers here reminds Chong of the labour rights movement in her own country. Before 1987, when South Korea got rid of its authoritarian regime and held democratic elections, there was a “tidal wave of strikes” across the country, said Chong. She added: “Right before this tidal wave of change, many of the women workers in light industries who organised sympathy strikes in the mid-1980s were brutally repressed.”

Chong said: “It is important for those of us who are awake and paying attention to combine our voices with Cambodian sisters and brothers who are trodden, beaten and shot, to ensure that employers and government cannot get away with such violations of human rights again.”

Activists in South Korea also feel a particular responsibility because so many garment factories in Cambodia are owned by Korean employers. Chong criticised their attempt to foist compensation lawsuits against workers, claiming that this envokes the plight of Korean workers who have committed suicide after having been sued for huge sums of money. She said: “Have the Korean employers not learned anything, not reflected at all upon their actions after having driven workers to suicide in South Korea?”


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