When unions and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) signed a memorandum of understanding in October last year, both sides were confident strikes in the Kingdom’s biggest export sector could be kept to a minimum.
“I believe strikes will be reduced, and we will solve our issues through legislative procedures,” Cambodian Labour Union Federation president Som Aun said at the time.
But despite intentions – and a $14 increase to the minimum wage for garment workers in May – 2013 has seen strikes in record numbers.
Not counting December, GMAC has recorded 131 strikes this year, the most since it began collecting data in 2003, and up from 34 in 2011, when a previous MoU was in place.
During strikes this year, a bystander has been shot dead by police, two women have miscarried after clashes with authorities, unionists have been jailed for months and factories have lost millions of dollars.
From the outset, 2013 shaped as a year of unrest in the Kingdom’s garment sector, which produces more than 85 per cent of total exports.
With the July election on the horizon, both major parties began pledging to increase the $61 monthly minimum wage.
But even before election campaigning swelled, workers were taking to the streets.
Hundreds of stranded employees of the shuttered Kingsland garment factory, a supplier to Walmart and H&M, slept outside their workplace from the first week of January, saying bosses had fled without paying wages and benefits. It was some months before they were paid.
Unions estimated that more than 10,000 garment workers (out of an industry of more than 400,000) went on strike in the first three weeks of the year.
By January 20, GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng was raising fears that the industry would incur major losses in 2013 if strikes continued.
In February, Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), union officials complained of “company-hired” thugs beating them at the E Garment factory in Kandal province.
In the same province in March, the accusations came from the other side – workers and unionists from the Free Trade Union were summonsed to court, accused of beating a boss at the Eternity Global
As the election approached, the opposition vowed to raise the minimum garment wage to $150 per month if it won the July 28 ballot. The government agreed to a $14 increase – originally $12 before intervention from Prime Minister Hun Sen – which took the minimum wage to $75, effective from May 1.
However, it wasn’t enough to appease 500 workers at the Su Tong Fang garment factory in the capital’s Russey Keo district, who went on strike days later demanding their bosses pay them the increase immediately. Also unimpressed, unions urged public rallies in subsequent months.
In May, about 5,000 workers piled into the street outside the M&V factory to strike. On the same day, about 1,500 workers blocked the roads outside two other garment factories.
Descending into violence
While strikes to this point had been constant, it wasn’t until clashes broke out at the Sabrina Garment factory in late May and June that they developed a more violent tone.
Two women, who miscarried after allegedly being assaulted by police, were among about 50 people injured.
Eight Free Trade Union leaders were arrested – and held for months in the provincial prison – while rival unions FTU and C.CAWDU blamed each other.
Hundreds of workers were subsequently fired, while buyer Nike called for an independent inquiry into the violence.
As the CNRP disputed the election result into August and many garment workers cautiously remained at home in the provinces, some of those that did return to their factories did so as strikers.
What would become the longest strike of the year began at the SL Garment factory in the capital’s Meanchey district on August 12 as thousands walked off the job, demanding better conditions and the sacking of shareholder Meas Sotha.
The factory, which soon said it was losing millions of dollars because of the strike, fired 19 C.CAWDU unionists and activists.
In a dark day for Cambodia, police opened fire after a clash broke out between SL Garment workers, police and passersby in Meanchey district during a protest march on November 12.
Eng Sokhom, a 49-year-old street food vendor, was shot dead during the crackdown and at least nine others were injured by police bullets.
After almost four months, the strike ended when the company agreed, among other things, to reinstate the 19 unionists and activists.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said the majority of strikes this year occurred due to low wages.
“Most of them happen because the discussions about increasing wages just take too long and often do not reach a suitable resolution,” he said.
As for the MoU, Mony said both employers and workers rarely abided by it.
“It’s good if both parties respect it, but [right now], the MoU has no effect on workers and employers.”
Dave Welsh, country manager for labour-rights group Solidarity Center, said he was still a supporter of the MoU.
“Of course there have been strikes that have been illegal . . . but look at the underlying reasons. What options do they have when their entire union is [dismissed]?”
Ken Loo, GMAC secretary-general, said the election had certainly contributed to an increase in strikes, so too had an increase in the number of factories.
“What’s more important to us, though, is the impunity of trade unions . . . there is personal gain to be sought in organising strikes,” he said. “In the past 12 to 18 months, violence seems to have become the norm. Why is it so?”
Despite garment exports exceeding $4 billion in the first nine months, up 22 per cent on last year, Loo said factories themselves were losing money.
“But the number of strikes is not what we should be focusing on . . . we want to focus on that they should be compliant [with the law].”
Right up until the final week of 2013, the issue of the minimum wage has remained in the spotlight.
In recent days, thousands have been protesting at about 40 factories in Svay Rieng’s Bavet town ahead of a government announcement over how the minimum wage will be increased over the next five years.
Sat Samoth, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said he hoped workers will stop protesting after the announcement.
“It is the workers’ rights to make these demands – but they should calm down.”
Today’s announcement – and the response from workers and unions – could provide a glimpse into what extent calm will prevail on the strike front in 2014.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR