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After deal, unions expect support

Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha addresses party supporters and garment workers at Freedom Park in December
Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha addresses party supporters and garment workers at Freedom Park in December. Scott Howes

After deal, unions expect support

News of an end to a year-long political deadlock has labour union leaders believing the opposition party can bring their interests to parliament, but a lack of follow-through could cost the Cambodia National Rescue Party vital support from one of its key interest groups.

Different union leaders said yesterday they hope that once the CNRP takes its seats and takes charge of its many committees, the newfound influence will translate into a reinvigorated push for a higher minimum wage and for investigations into fatal strike shootings.

“I would say there’s potential [for labour reform] and there’s also an obligation,” said Dave Welsh, country director of labour rights NGO Solidarity Center. “If we recall what happened in January, what was a labour issue turned into a political issue.”

During a 10-day strike in December and January, CNRP members – including senior lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua and opposition leader Sam Rainsy – encouraged unionists to strike until the minimum monthly wage was raised to $160. Workers wearing stickers reading “$160” joined CNRP supporters in massive gatherings at Freedom Park and in marches around Phnom Penh.

The strikes and marches, however, ended in an abrupt series of crackdowns, punctuated by the shooting deaths of at least five garment workers on the capital’s Veng Sreng Boulevard on January 3.

The CNRP’s promise to raise the minimum wage in the garment sector to $150 during last year’s election campaign was arguably a large factor in its major gains in the National Assembly, winning 55 seats to the ruling party’s 68. There are hundreds of thousands of garment workers, most of whom are eligible to vote.

“Workers still demand a wage increase and the government and garment factories still have not resolved this, but with a two-party system, we can get closer to $160,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the Kingdom’s largest independent garment union. “Politicians can have more influence on workers and workers can have more influence on politicians.”

Collective Union of Movement of Workers president Pav Sina and Free Trade Union president Chea Mony both said their continued support of the CNRP at least partially hinges on its promise to raise the minimum wage in the garment sector to at least $160.

“The largest priority for the [C.CAWDU] is to find out [what happened] and find justice for the people,” said Kong Athit, C.CAWDU’s vice president, referring to deadly shootings at garment protests in November and January and the arrest and conviction of 23 people.

His and other unions will apply heavy pressure on CNRP lawmakers to open investigations into the two shootings if the party does not bring it up themselves, Athit said.

Those who were injured are also seeking answers.

Kha Srey, who was four months’ pregnant when she was shot in the thigh on January 3, yesterday said she wants accountability.

“I ask for the government or the international community to investigate this case to give us justice,” Srey said. “I think when they conduct the investigation they will find that some in the government acted wrongly.”

The committee on labour, public health, social work and women’s affairs will prioritise both wages and investigations into the shootings, Sochua said yesterday. The committee was under CPP control in the past, but the opposition leadership will fight for higher minimum wages, she added.

It is only a matter of time before investigations into the shootings occur, she said.

“It will happen,” Sochua said, though she was unsure when.

CNRP members have talked a large game to get unionists on their side, said Chuon Mom Thol, president of the government-aligned Cambodian Union Federation.

But during high-level talks between the opposition and the ruling party last year, workers’ wages never came up, Mom Thol said.

“[In] late 2013, when there was a meeting with a top government official, I never heard Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha speak a word about raising wages to $160,” Mom Thol said yesterday. “It’s not a high priority at this moment, but maybe near [the next] election day they will bring this up again to gain support.”

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