A hush has fallen over Cambodia’s garment sector. With the exception of the occasional strike, life on the factory floor has in ways returned to how it was before the mass strike that turned deadly in January.
“The situation is much quieter than after the violence,” says Ear Chheng Lim, 26, a worker at the Canadia Industrial Park, near where security forces shot dead at least four people on January 3. “I have not seen any police or military police along Veng Sreng [Boulevard] this month. The situation outside the factory, actually, is normal.”
Except it isn’t. The wage issue, which led to the deadly violence, remains unresolved, results of a government investigation into the fatal shootings remain unreleased and calls continue for 21 unionists and workers arrested to be freed.
“All this could be resolved overnight,” said Dave Welsh, whose labour-rights organisation Solidarity Center has been meeting with the government regularly. “Momentum continues in terms of fairly massive pressure and attention … but there’s been no movement.”
Last week, unions postponed a stay-at-home garment strike until after the Khmer New Year, citing workers’ financial concerns. While unions demanding a $160 minimum wage remain confident they will still be able to rally workers, communication between them and the government has broken down.
Yang Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said Ministry of Labour officials had met only twice with unions since January’s violence.
“We met … but did not get any kind of result,” she said, adding that unions had sought further meetings, but received no response. “I expect there will be another meeting once the ILO and other institutes intervene.”
Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, is not so sure.
“The [government] does not want to give credibility to the unions,” he said. “The main problem is that [Labour Minister Ith] Sam Heng has not informed or responded to unions that are protesting.”
Welsh said that in the face of the “wrong type of [global] media in terms of Cambodia’s reputation”, and despite diplomatic pressure behind closed doors, the government had launched an assault on unions and continued using government forces to “scare” workers.
“There’s been no movement on the imprisoned workers and unionists. There has been no movement on the minimum wage. A group has been commissioned … but there was a similar group created [last year].”
Ministry of Labour spokesman Heng Sour said the government was waiting for the ILO to appoint a technical expert to help it assess wages.
“After [that], we will set up a time, which we expect will be in April. I do hope that after we receive that … we will be able to broaden the meetings to include unions.”
As well as feeling left out of wage talks, CATU’s Sophorn said, unions had been ignored when it came to the shooting investigation.
“The Ministry of Labour did not invite or summons any unions for questioning over the protests or violence,” she said.
Brands that met with the government in Phnom Penh last month have since expressed concern over its proposed trade union law. Welsh said they needed to talk even tougher.
“They allude to the fact that their continued source is based on this [violence] not happening again … but three months in, there hasn’t been much resolution,” he said. “They have leverage.”
Since the shootings, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia has publicly challenged the “fundamental” right to strike, while employers and business groups have called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to reconsider what Cambodia gets out of being a signatory to the ILO’s Convention 87 on freedom of association.
But Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, said his association was not being confrontational.
“We have never stopped speaking to the unions,” he said. Loo added, however, that GMAC had no intention of talking more about the minimum wage, which stands at $100.
“There is no room for further negotiations.”
But Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said unions were waiting for promised talks with the ministry. “If the issue has not been resolved by Khmer New Year, our unions and associations that have members at about 200 factories will strike again,” he said.
While life might seem normal again back at her factory, Chheng Lim is not willing to accept that it can’t get better.
“Unionists … have distributed letters informing me we’re going to strike after the New Year. I will join, because I still need a higher wage,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA