Pro-government and independent labour unions have slammed a suggestion from self-exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy that the European Union should use threats against the garment industry as a way of improving the human rights situation in Cambodia.
Speaking to the European Parliament’s human right subcommittee last week, Rainsy said diplomacy was only “symbolic” and ineffective in getting the government’s attention. Instead, the bloc could threaten to restrict garment imports, he said.
“So, if you affect this market, it’s not the workers or the little guys who are touched,” he said in French. “It’s the big benefits of the business owners [that are affected], of which a large portion is poured into the bank accounts of the ruling party.”
Speaking to the Post yesterday, Rainsy stood by his comments saying it was essential to understand the “spirit” of his message to the EU, likening it to those made by local unions to international buyers when they wanted to draw attention to worker conditions in Cambodia. “A threat is not always meant to be materialised. However, in a diplomatic interactive process, it can be effective in obtaining the desired result,” he added.
Reacting to Rainsy’s suggestion, four pro-government unions and one independent union released statements yesterday saying that any hit to exports would directly impact workers on factory floors.
A statement from Mom Seak, president of the Youth Spirit Confederation for Cambodian Labor, said Rainsy’s suggestion was “cruel” and restricting Cambodian garment exports to the EU would destroy the livelihoods of a million workers.
“We condemn him and suggest the EU don’t listen to his speech,” he said. “We suggest the EU continues to import garments from Cambodia to support our livelihood.”
The Cambodia Confederation of Workers Rights, Union Alliance Chamber of Cambodia and Voice Khmer Youth Union Federation also released statements along the same lines.
Independent union leader Pav Sina also disagreed with Rainsy, saying the move would not affect him but many others.
“I think the political crisis should be resolved,” said the president of the Confederation of Cambodia Workers Movement. “But the effect will be on workers, and not Sam Rainsy.”
Ear Sophal, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California, said the “elites” would portray any garment import restrictions imposed by the EU as an attack on Cambodian workers. “It could also backfire for the opposition if the narrative is won by the authorities,” Sophal said.
However, he said threatening the revenues of the Cambodian elite would hit home at some point. “This could really wake them up,” said Sophal.
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon