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Cambodian Garment Workers Sacked for Striking

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4 October, 2010

Over 3,300 garment workers in Kandal province, southern Cambodia, have been sacked after they took strike action in protest of the new monthly minimum wage for the sector. That wage, set in July, is for US$61 a month.

There is also widespread discontent among workers in the sector over poor working conditions and unemployment. The main cause of anger now is the retaliatory sacking of strikers, and especially of the trade union activists for their roles in the strikes.

Workers had demanded a raise of the minimum monthly wage from US$50 to US$93. The new minimum of US$61 does not constitute a living wage in Cambodia. Unions began a four-day strike on 13 September. The strike did not become an issue for employers until the third day, at which time an estimated 200,000 workers had joined the walk-out. It was stopped on 16 September so talks could resume.

ITGLWF General Secretary Patrick Itschert

But then further strike action was carried out by 10,000 workers on 17 September, calling for the reinstatement of 200 suspended union representatives, blocked from returning to work in blatant breach of their rights to organize, bargain, and strike.

Social Affairs Minister Ith Sam Heng called for the reinstatement of all sacked workers, and pleaded with unions not to strike. His call was followed by three factories in Kandal province employing 3,300 workers who announced their refusal to comply with the Minister’s request.

While it was the promise of more negotiations that stopped the strike, neither the government nor employers have indicated any likelihood of significant concessions. The government did call employers and unions back together on 27 September for talks.

The International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) welcomed the meeting on September 27 brokered by the government, but criticised the strike-breaking tactics of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

“[The government] filed law suits against union leaders on charges of ‘incitement,’ and appealed to the police to collaborate with the industry association GMAC in cracking down on the strike and in seizing materials which could be used in legal action against the strikers,” said ITGLWF General Secretary Patrick Itschert.

Clothing brands and retailers including Adidas, Gap, H&M, and Levi’s wrote to employers and unions to express their “great concern” at the unrest, but have expressed no concern over the poverty wages paid to those workers making their products.

Global retailers must take responsibility for the social damage caused by the “race to the bottom.” It is impossible for workers to receive anything higher than poverty wages unless global retailers pay suppliers reasonable prices. Instead, suppliers are forced year on year to produce larger orders at lower costs.

Kandal province, where the affected factories are located, completely surrounds but does not include the national capital Phnom Penh.