After garment workers swelled turnout at the opposition’s ongoing demonstrations yesterday to what some estimated to be double the number seen at any previous rally, party leadership announced a weeklong moratorium on the marches.
Demonstrators will continue to assemble at Freedom Park each day, said Cambodia National Rescue Party MP-elect Mu Sochua, hours after protesters took to the streets yesterday. But instead of marching, protesters will hold “peoples’ conferences” – during which they will be allowed to speak freely onstage – each day from 4:30pm to 6:30pm.
“We can block a road whenever we want,” said Sochua, who added that the weeklong respite in marching will give the ruling Cambodian Peoples’ Party until January 5 to mull over a proposal CNRP members sent them on Saturday for the two parties to begin negotiations. “It has to come to the negotiation table; I don’t think we can avoid each other.”
The number of protesters marching yesterday appeared to exceed last Sunday’s estimated 100,000 people, with demonstrators continuing to demand the government increase the minimum monthly garment wage to $160 next year, rather than $95, which the Labour Ministry set last week.
In response to the growing strike, the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) yesterday said that it had no choice but to close factories until the issue was resolved.
In an open letter from GMAC, the factory association warns its 473 members that protesters could pose a danger to workers and factory property.
“[GMAC] would like to inform all stakeholders that our industry is unable to continue operations given the current situation,” the letter reads. “The illegal and violent actions of … six trade unions … as well as their apparent impunity by the Ministry of Labour have left us with no other option but to close.”
The letter levies allegations that striking union members destroy factory property and force employees who do not want to walk off the job to join. Unions the letter says are guilty of these transgressions include the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia (NIFTUC), the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), the Free Trade Union, the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU).
GMAC also yesterday declined an invitation to meet with the Ministry of Labour and heads of six unions, including some mentioned in the letter, for negotiations this morning.
Members of GMAC will only sit back down at the negotiating table when the safety of employees who want to attend work can be guaranteed, the letter says.
“When these conditions are met, we would be happy to receive the invitation for GMAC members to resume operations,” the letter says. “Only then will we be able to participate.”
C.CAWDU president Ath Thorn yesterday said GMAC’s refusal could facilitate a greater rift between them and workers, and that negotiating with the unions could help GMAC members better understand the demonstrators’ side of the situation. However, he added, it us up to the ministry, not GMAC, to set the industry’s minimum wage.
“Whether GMAC comes or not, the government has the right [to set the] minimum wage,” Thorn said.
Responding to the letter, the Labour Ministry released a statement last night, sympathising with factory owners and pledging to work with authorities on all levels to curtail further alleged violence and property damage.
But the ministry will go forward with negotiations with union officials, despite GMAC’s snub.
“The Labour Ministry regrets that GMAC cannot join the meeting and also regrets property damage and other impacts caused by the strike,” the statement says. “The ministry hopes that GMAC will consider joining in strike resolution talks again.”
With all GMAC factories advised to close, garment workers in pro-Cambodian People’s Party unions are considering a counter-demonstration against the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party tomorrow, said Chuon Momthol, president of the Cambodian Union Federation.
If negotiations today lead nowhere, Momthol will tomorrow lead pro-CPP garment workers on a march to the CNRP headquarters, where they will rally against the strike, which CNRP president Sam Rainsy has publicly backed.
“The workers who did not join in the protest are angry because they are not earning a salary, so they will protest against the CNRP and unions,” Momthol said yesterday. “When the investors or factory owners walk away, the opposition party officials won’t starve, but the workers will.”
In a speech to the hordes of protesters yesterday, the opposition vice-president called for Prime Minister Hun Sen to fulfil the demonstrators’ demands, one of which is for the premier to step down.
“Why can’t Hun Sen do what the people want?” asked Sokha. If [Hun Sen] cannot do it, he is a coward.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL