PHNOM PENH— In Cambodia, tens of thousands of garment workers have gone on strike to protest what they regard as an inadequate increase in the monthly minimum wage. As tensions rise on the streets, the body that represents garment exporters has advised them to close their factories temporarily.
Garment workers are angry that the government this week decided to boost the monthly minimum wage by just $15 – from $80 to $95. Many had expected it would double to $160. The new minimum wage is due to come into effect in April 2014.
VOA spoke to workers protesting outside three garment factories on Wednesday. All told a similar story; with prices rising in the markets and rents going up, they cannot survive on what they earn, and are forced to work overtime simply to make ends meet.
Half a dozen workers said that, ahead of the announcement of the new minimum wage, their landlords had raised their monthly rent by $5.
Huot Lykeang, who has worked in the sector for 13 years as a sewing machine operator, was one of several hundred striking workers standing outside the Great Union garment factory in Phnom Penh.
Her son lives with her family back in the provinces, and with price rises outstripping the increase in wages, she said that it is getting harder to send money home.
Huot said she would like to be able to save at least some of what she earns, and challenged government officials to try to survive on $95 a month. She said that if they are able to do so, then she will accept what has been tabled. But if not, then Prime Minister Hun Sen should step down, and the government should raise the minimum wage to $160.
Cambodia’s garment industry is the country’s key foreign exchange earner – worth more than $5 billion this year alone, mostly in exports to the U.S. and the European Union. The sector is also Cambodia’s biggest formal employer, with 400,000 workers.
Wages have not kept pace with inflation over the years. As a result, the number of strikes has increased. Last year, the sector lost more than half a million days to strike action, the worst in its two-decade history. This year has been even worse, and will likely see one million days lost.
Some strikes have seen violence on both sides. In the worst incident, riot police used live ammunition at a protest in November, killing one bystander and injuring several people.
With tens of thousands of workers walking out this week, the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, or GMAC, the body that represents the more than 400 garment exporting factories, on Thursday advised its members to close for the next few days.
GMAC secretary-general Ken Loo said the risk of violence is simply too great.
“We sent out an advisory to all members, if they are affected, to please send their workers home for the safety of the workers as well as to protect the factory, because we see – and it is our understanding – that the group that is going around, their main purpose is to force workers away from the workplace – it’s basically not allowing the workers to work. And many factories have been affected by this,” said Loo.
Factories that continue operating, thinks Loo, will likely run into trouble.
The timing of the protests is a boon for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, which narrowly lost July’s general election. The CNRP made remarkable gains, in part by promising to double the monthly minimum wage for garment workers. That won over much of the sector’s workforce, most of whom are young women who support their impoverished rural families.
Since the July vote, which it claims was fraudulent, the CNRP has held regular rallies. Last Sunday, for instance, it organized a huge march with an estimated 40,000 people through the center of Phnom Penh, calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to resign and for new elections to be held.
Hun Sen has rejected both demands outright, and has also refused an independent inquiry into allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Sam Rainsy has heaped further pressure on the government with his call this week for garment workers to strike until the government boosts the minimum wage to $160 a month.
On Thursday, thousands of garment workers joined the opposition protesters in a park in the capital. Sam Rainsy wants one million people to come to Phnom Penh for a massive rally on Sunday.