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REPORT: IndustriALL mobilizes global support for garment workers in Cambodia

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21 May, 2014The rights of garment workers in Cambodia have become a priority for IndustriALL Global Union following the government’s brutal crackdown on wage demonstrations in January, leaving four people dead, 39 injured and 23 people in prison.


Text: Léonie Guguen

Since then, public demonstrations have been banned, freedom of association has been suspended and garment factories have launched multimillion dollar law suits against union leaders. Global unions and brands have come together in condemning the violence against the wage protestors and have repeatedly called for the Cambodian administration to set out a path towards a minimum living wage and release the detainees.

IndustriALL has been instrumental in leading a global campaign of solidarity in support of the garment workers who are fighting for an increase in the minimum wage, as well as the release of 21 out of the 23 wage protestors that remain in prison.

As the future of garment workers in Cambodia hangs in the balance, IndustriALL, together with UNI Global Union and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), has been continuously negotiating to keep the channels of communication open between garment workers, factory owners and the government. In collaboration with UNI, the ITUC and the International Labour Organization (ILO), IndustriALL has secured the backing of 30 international clothing brands in a series of meetings and communications with the Cambodian government.

Violent response to demand for increased minimum wage

IndustriALL has eight affiliates in Cambodia who represent garment workers. In December 2013, IndustriALL and the affiliates hosted three crucial meetings with unions to agree on a common figure for the minimum wage negotiations where they settled on US$ 160 a month (the minimum wage of US$ 80 per month was one of the lowest in the world). It would still not be a living wage, but a step forward for the 400,000 garment workers, which generate exports worth US$ 5 billion a year.

The government and employers only accepted a raise to US$ 95, which was later changed to US$ 100 a month. Mass demonstrations and strikes in support of the new wage demand on 2 and 3 January this year turned deadly after violent suppression by government authorities. Police opened fire on protestors, killing four and seriously injuring 39 others. It was not the first time lethal force had been used against the garment workers. In November last year, a woman garment worker was killed after police fired water shots and beat demonstrators.

The horrific violence in January prompted a global outcry, with unions in Thailand and Korea demonstrating outside Cambodian embassies in solidarity for the garment workers. In a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, unions and brands condemned the violence by Cambodian authorities, demanding justice and assurances that it wouldn’t happen again.

Cambodia has been ruled by Hun Sen, a defector from the Khmer Rouge regime, for the past 28 years. He has vowed to continue running the country until he is 74. General elections in July 2013 saw him cling on to power but were denounced by the opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which said they lost out on 2.3 million votes as a result of widespread vote rigging. The ruling Cambodian people’s Party won 68 seats in the parliament compared to the CNRP’s 55.

Since the January strikes, public demonstrations have been banned and 21 wage protestors have remained in prison virtually incommunicado and without trial.

Workers around the world rally to show support

IndustriALL spearheaded a global day of action by union affiliates and NGOs around the world in solidarity for the detainees to demand their release ahead of a bail hearing on 11 February.

IndustriALL affiliates organized demonstrations and hand-delivered letters to Cambodian embassies in Brussels, Canberra, Dhaka, Geneva, Honduras, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila, Seoul, Sri Lanka, Tokyo and Washington D.C. Affiliates in many other countries across the globe also sent letters or petitions to Cambodian embassies.

The message to the Cambodian authorities is clear,

says IndustriALL’s general secretary Jyrki Raina.

We will not stop until all the workers are released.

A week after the detainees were denied bail, IndustriALL and the ITUC were joined by H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A and Puma in a high-level meeting in the capital Phnom Penh hosted by Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon, with several ministers including the Ministers of Labour and Commerce and other senior government officials present. In frank discussions, brands expressed their desire for stability, a functioning wage mechanism and healthy industrial relations.

Since the meeting, however, the government has alarmingly suspended freedom of association of workers in Cambodia, refusing to register new unions until the new trade union law is passed, which might not be until the end of the year.

The government suspension is in direct contravention of ILO’s Convention 87, ratified by Cambodia, which guarantees that workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization.

In a further act of discrimination against the unions, the Ministry of Labour now requires union leaders to prove that they do not have a criminal record before registering new branches of their organization.

The Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Association (GMAC), which has failed to condemn the government’s deadly use of force against demonstrators, has also retaliated by filing law suits totaling US$ 72 million against six union leaders for damage to factories during the protests.

Brands join global unions in committing to wages and rights

In response to the deterioration of relations between garment workers, the government and factory owners, IndustriALL, Uni and the ITUC together with 30 major brands, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, Adidas and Nike, signed a joint letter to the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia on 14 March asking for an inclusive and prompt mechanism for determination of the minimum wage, freedom of association for unions, and respect for the rights of the 21 detainees.

While recognizing the right of factory owners to seek redress from anyone proven to have committed criminal damage to their property, brands and unions also expressed fear that proposed legal action against trade unions would escalate the situation and make it more difficult to find constructive solutions.

Global unions and brands are unitedin their efforts to support this process to seek an end to the stalemate over the minimum wage

says Raina whilst acknowledging that all the brands must commit to paying more to suppliers cover the costs of increased wages.

The impact of wage increases on the selling price will be negligible for the brands and yet life-changing for garment workers. Brands need to assure factory owners that they are prepared to take the minimum wage into account and absorb the extra cost.

IndustriALL will continue its action for workers’ rights in Cambodia, to ensure a living wage, and the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining without fear of violence.