International labor rights groups have issued a report about the Cambodian workers' movement, that staged massive protests after the government failed to meet popular demands for a minimum wage increase in December. The report
, released Thursday, found the workers' participation in the strikes was unprecedented, as was the government's repression.
In Cambodia, the garment industry accounts for both opportunity in the form of massive exports and tensions in the form of low-wages for a large segment of the country's poor.
The contradiction came to a head in January, when armed forces violently cracked down on a series of strikes organized by workers demanding better pay. The demonstrations resulted in at least four deaths and dozens of injuries. A 16- year-old worker is still missing.
An international fact-finding team visited Cambodia just weeks after the violent protests. It reported its findings at the Foreign Correspondent Club in Hong Kong on Thursday.
They concluded that the government's denial of the worker's demands and its response to the strikes with violence indicate it is more concerned with protecting the interests of the garment industry than those of the workers.
“They don't want the democratic discussion in the tripartite committee. They always restrict the voice of the democratic unions inside the discussion,” said Kong Athit, General Secretary of the Cambodian Labor Confederation.
Adjustment of minimum wages, which have remained stagnant despite high inflation, is to be reviewed by the Labor Advisory Committee. The organ consists of representatives from the government, employers and workers. But labor rights groups question the independence of some of the trade union members with seats in the committee.
On December 24, the committee announced a raise in the national minimum wage, from $80 to $95 monthly, far below the workers' demand of $160.
The news triggered strikes, with thousands of workers taking to the streets in and around Phnom Penh.
The labor report says some employers tried to keep workers from joining the protests by offering them economic incentives to stay at their factories. Others, it adds, simply locked the gates to prevent people from getting out.
In early January, the situation escalated and armed forces opened fire against the protestors.
“The violent repression of workers' protest causing death was unprecedented, excessive and unnecessary causing a human rights emergency,” noted team coordinator Fahmi Panimbang.
Since the crackdown, international brands who outsource in the country have condemned the violence, but also expressed concern about the safety of their investment.
Labor confederation leader Kong Athit says it is unclear whether they are willing to shoulder the costs of higher wages. “The problem between the brand and the supplier is still there. The barrier of 'who is paying and who is only saying?' This is the real problem now in the global textile chain,” Kong Athit said.
Despite a government ban against demonstrations, strikes are continuing.
Kong Athit says workers in 200 factories are boycotting overtime work, another issue of contention for workers who say they are exploited to the point of exhaustion.
Twenty-one people are still under arrest following the strike.
The report called on the government to release the prisoners, which include trade union representatives and workers, and go back to the negotiation table.