Global unions have welcomed the release of 23 Cambodian wage protestors arrested following demonstrations in January but remain concerned at the severity of the court verdict and the lack of a fair trial.
After considerable pressure and campaigning both locally and internationally by IndustriALL Global Union, the ITUC and UNI Global Union, as well as support from NGOs and fashion brands, the 23 workers were released following a Phnom Penh court verdict on Friday 30 May.
The 23 men, 21 of whom had been denied bail and detained since January, were given suspended sentences ranging from six months to four-and a half years. In a separate verdict, two trade unionists charged in November 2013 in relation to the SL Garment strike were also released, bringing the total to 25. Charges included instigating a crime, intentional violence with aggravating circumstances, and intentional destruction of property. Four of the men were ordered to pay fines of about US$2,000 each.
IndustriALL’s general secretary, Jyrki Raina, who also represented ITUC and UNI at a high-level meeting with brands and government ministers on 26 May, said:
“We are immensely relieved that the detainees have been released and are reunited with their families after five long months in prison. The harsh but suspended prison sentences doled out by the court were an attempt to save face after serious criticism by a number of international observers about a lack of direct evidence against the accused and serious irregularities in their trial.”
Ath Thorn, President of IndustriALL affiliate garment workers’ union, C.CAWDU, said:
“This victory is the first step. The trade union movement will continue to fight for a minimum wage of US$160 for garment and textile workers and to ensure the protection of workers’ rights, decent work and dignity.”
IndustriALL, ITUC and UNI will now focus on the continuing battle over the minimum wage and trade union law process. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has issued a stinging critique on the latest draft of the trade union law, which according to ILO appears to “ignore requests from ILO’s committee of experts on the application of conventions and recommendations”.
The Cambodian government, meanwhile, confirmed that the background research into a new wage setting mechanism will be completed and presented to the unions and the garment manufacturers’ association, GMAC, by mid-June so that minimum wage negotiations can re-start.
Philip Jennings from UNI said:
"We welcome news that the 23 workers who were wrongly imprisoned for standing up against injustice have been released. We now ask the Cambodian government to do the right thing and recognize global labour standards and resolve the issue over the minimum wage. Across the world there is a new recognition that decent wages will be one of the foundations of a global recovery. Cambodia is a mature country and should act as one."
ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow said that joint campaigning had yet again delivered for workers:
“International solidarity works! Our global trade unions have mobilized together in major cities across the world and constantly lobbied the Cambodian government, manufacturers and international clothing brands to reverse the unacceptable situation of early January. The treatment of Cambodian garment workers in early January when they protested for a living wage included police brutality, arrests and outright union busting. There is no way that ITUC, IndustriALL and UNI would allow that treatment to continue. The campaign continues for worker justice in Cambodia."
“IndustriALL will continue to work with the brands, Cambodian government, unions and employers to get these reforms right to make the Cambodian garment industry sustainable, with living wages, freedom of association and functioning industrial relations,” said Raina.