Saroeun: victim of unsafe working conditions
SS Labor Day demonstrators rallied for better pay and conditions, perhaps the most poignant example of the shortcomings in Cambodia's labor environment was a 14-year-old girl.
The slight teenager flashes a bright smile when asked what she wanted to be when she grows up. "I want to be a doctor, it's easy just to inject medicine and things," she says. "Before my accident, I wanted to be a teacher, but now I don't have my right hand any more."
Saroeun (not her real name) lost her right arm and most of her shoulder in the Takhmao brick factory where she worked. She was earning 2,500 riel a day to help support her family. On March 29, 1997, she was loading wet clay into a crushing machine when she slipped on the slick floor.
"One hand got caught in the machinery. My colleague pulled on my other hand, otherwise the machine would have destroyed my whole body." It took two hours to extricate her from the metal rollers, which had no protective casing.
Saroeun and her family are filing a lawsuit against the factory for $2,000. Her medical bills alone cost $150 - 210 times her daily salary. Doctors say because so much of her shoulder is missing a prosthesis is unlikely to be effective, according to staff at the human rights group Licadho, which is aiding the family.
Her court case, however, may be difficult, as the labor law is clear neither on laying out appropriate work conditions for children, nor on employer compensation.
The factory owner, after several refusals, ended up paying Saroeun 100,000 riel ($29).
Saroeun's story is but one example of the poor working conditions and lack of protection for Cambodian workers.
Told of Saroeun's treatment, opposition political figure Sam Rainsy, a lawyer who regularly represents workers in labor disputes, said: "This is a typical case.
"There are no regulations when workers are sick or have accidents. They are often fired or suspended. That is why we must strengthen unions."
To that goal he and union leader Ou Mary led thousands of garment factory workers, civil servants, disabled soldiers and other supporters on a lively Labor Day march through the streets of Phnom Penh which culminated with about 1,500 at Independence Monument. For nearly three hours they carried banners that said: "No GSP for Exploitation" and "Sweatshops and Slavery".
In contrast to footage of labor day marches around the world, which generally included gritty middle-aged men in workers' garb, the rally organized by the Free Trade Union of the Workers of Cambodia consisted mostly of young women and girls in fine garments from the factories they work in. They marched for a livable monthly wage; $60 for workers and 100,000 riel for civil servants.
"We work hard but in very bad working conditions imposed by employers," said one worker from the Penas textile factory. "We joined this rally to ask the government to help us."
While the battle to improve the salaries and conditions of garment workers has been given much publicity, Rainsy pointed out that civil servants have not had a pay raise since he gave them a 20% hike when he was Finance Minister.
Since then, he said, the price of key staples such as rice, pork and gasoline have doubled while salaries have remained stagnant "How can you treat civil servants like that? You cannot cut civil salaries in half."
He said that the current government showed disrespect by giving people hand-outs rather than a decent wage.
"People don't need gifts, they need dignity... Farmers need water," he said.
"Hun Sen comes with kramas, a sarong... I say we are not beggars. This language is so simple. With it I will pull the carpet out from under Hun Sen's feet."
Businessman Ted Ngoy, a political ally of Hun Sen who led a competing rally of about 500 people at the same Olympic stadium complex, said he also supported improvements in workers' rights but the months before elections were not the time for such ideas.
Ngoy, who has long worked to expand Cambodian trade with the US, said he and Rainsy both want to improve the plight of workers.
"The only thing Rainsy and I differ on is that he strikes. We do not support workers' strikes, so we [counter] the opposition.
"There is some violation of workers rights, that cannot be denied. [Offenders] must be punished. But instead of doing this, some people appeal to the US to repeal [trade privileges]."
Asked about trade worker conditions in Cambodia where employees rarely receive support when they are injured, sick or fired, he replied: "This is not good. The celebration was to send a message across the nation, that we care for workers and on child labor... We must at least comply with minimum human conditions."
While workers continue to struggle on with employers whose main concern is the bottom line, Saroeun faces a daily struggle to overcome the devastating injury. With her dream of being a doctor likely shattered and few resources to assist her as she tries to find some normalcy, she is now focusing on the most basic of tasks.
"I want to go to school," she said, yet she shook her head as she spoke. "But I'm afraid I cannot write with my left hand."