Banners calling for higher wages and the government to find the “real” murderers of slain union leader Chea Vichea were among those carried by thousands of workers who marched through the capital yesterday to mark International Labour Day.
More than 5,000 people converged on the National Assembly, where they presented a petition to legislator that demanded improved working conditions.
“All garment factories must have skilled doctors,” the hand-written sign of one worker outside the assembly read. “The government must act to regulate rent prices around factories,” read another.
Discrimination against men in the garment sector and sexual harassment against women needed to be addressed, workers said, and fixed-duration contracts needed to be scrapped.
Beer promoters made it known that their product was beer – not their bodies – while sex workers simply wanted respect.
Political parties were chasing the same thing. With less than three months until the National Election, opposition and ruling party lawmakers alike trumpeted their policies on working conditions and wages – issues pundits predict will be mainstays until the election.
No doubt aware of this, union groups appealed to workers to be mindful of how they vote on July 28.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, said this applied particularly to civil servants, who are often paid less than the new national minimum garment wage of $75 per month.
“We’ve spent 20 years demanding better conditions and wages . . . but they still have not received better,” he said. “We think Prime Minister Hun Sen has no new ideas and it’s time to find a new leader.”
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labour Confederation, said whoever wins the election must introduce a minimum wage of $150 per month and increase civil servants’ salaries to at least $250.
“The new government must also eliminate the use of the courts against unions and protesters, and establish a labour court,” he said.
Justice was needed for the three garment workers shot last year, allegedly by former Bavet governor Chhouk Bandith, he added.
Garment worker Syneoun, 26, said she had lost confidence in the government and wanted change.
“I don’t trust the leaders right now when it comes to working conditions – but I don’t trust any of these other lawmakers 100 per cent that they will address our demands either,” she said.
Syneoun said she would vote for either the Cambodian National Rescue Party or Funcinpec – the two parties that addressed the crowd yesterday.
Taking the stage, Kem Sokha, acting CNRP president, said his party would address working conditions if it won.
“The CNRP will protect workers’ rights, enforce the Labour Law and raise the minimum wage to $150,” he said. “[We] will build a training centre for workers that will improve their skills and allow them to find better-paying jobs.”
Tep Nunry, a Funcinpec Party lawmaker, said he supported the workers, including their demands for a $150 minimum wage.
In Preah Sihanouk province, Prime Minister Hun Sen was also talking about working conditions. His focus, however, was on how much they had improved since the last national election.
The minimum wage had increased from $50 to $75, and because of this, the ruling party was best placed to make decisions about working conditions, he said.
“I don’t believe the Cambodian People’s Party will lose. The owner of votes is the one who can make the decisions,” he said.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the issue of working conditions would not go away.
“I think it has been a big issue since the opposition announced its higher wages,” he said. “It put the ruling party on the defensive, and if workers can continue to pursue higher wages, there will be pressure.”
Such demands were reasonable due to the extent of economic growth Cambodia had experienced, Mong Hay said.
“[Garment workers] contribute billions of US dollars to the economy. They deserve a fairer share of economic growth to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.”
Loem Srey Mom, from the Workers Information Centre in Phnom Penh, agreed.
“If they have more salary, they will have better health. Workers are living four to a room because they cannot afford more,” she said.
Echoing the sentiments of many yesterday, rights group Amnesty International called for Born Samnang, 32, and Sok Sam Oeun, 45 – the two men “wrongly” sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder of Vichea – to be released.
“These two men should never have been convicted in the first place,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s researcher on Cambodia, said in a statement.
Vichea, the leader of the Free Trade Union, was gunned down in 2004.