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Despite Violence, Cambodian Workers Vow To Continue Their Fight

12:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rashif Sheikh, All Voices (creative commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Though Cambodia’s days of colonialization, war and genocide may be over, the country is still wrestling with political turmoil. At the start of the new year, when workers massed in Phnom Penh to demand a fair minimum wage, the government responded with a spray of bullets.

A major garment worker strike in December capped a recent groundswell of protest in the country’s capital. After deeming insufficient the government’s proposed hike of the minimum wage to $95, labor leaders aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to shutter factories and bring large crowds into the streets, concluding a year of labor agitation that saw more than 130 strikes.

Newly reelected Prime Minister Hun Sen—a former Khmer Rouge official whose legitimacy has been questioned amid accusations of rigging last summer’s election—took the protests as an opportunity to suppress both the pro-democracy and labor movements with one fierce blow. On January 3, police responded to protesters’ bottles and petrol bombs with live ammunition, killing five and injuring dozens. More than twenty were detained, and some are reportedly still being held incommunicado.

On January 4, the government then forcibly cleared a major protest encampment in the city center; many workers have since returned to their jobs. Factories have also started to reopen after temporarily shutting down out of safety concerns. In the wake of the unrest, a coalition of rights groups, including Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum, has called for an “immediate end to all violence and intimidation against workers and their representatives,” release of detained protesters and no charges against the strikers. Meanwhile, activists are continuing to push for the minimum wage to be raised to $160 a month.

Cambodian garment and shoe producers employ roughly 600,000 people in about 800 factories, and their business is eased by neoliberal trade policies with Western nations, particularly the United States. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay workers a pittance—generally as low as about $80 a month—compared to the profits they reap.

David Welsh, a Phnom Penh-based organizer with AFL-CIO’s international arm, the Solidarity Center, says the $160 minimum wage demand is the very least the garment industry could offer, especially considering some advocacy groups estimate that a living wage would be more than triple workers’ current pay. The Solidarity Center has been facilitating talks with the Labor Ministry and campaigning with local civil society groups for the detained activists. Along with other labor groups, the Solidarity Center has also raised concerns about a trend toward placing workers on so-called fixed-duration or short-term contracts, which tend to restrict job security for workers who came to factories seeking steady livelihoods.

According to Welsh, big retail brands foster a common media narrative that claims labor costs must be kept low to meet market demand. He explains that companies use the threat of pulling out of Cambodia if unions demand too much as a way to “discourage workers, to sort of say, ‘Do this or you’ll be out of the job.’”

Realistically, though, Welsh says, “The amount of work that is being put into creating an incredible supply chain internationally … with foreign investors that are getting off like bandits, frankly, off the backs of impoverished Cambodian workers—the dynamic cannot continue.”

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Cambodian Workers Wrest Justice from Wal-Mart and H&M Supplier

5:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cambodian garment workers celebrate winning a settlement of as much as $200,000. (Photo from Community Legal Education Center)

Cross-posted at In These Times

After workers across the U.S. staged mini-strikes at Wal-Marts this winter, a small crowd of Cambodian garment workers caused a stir by camping in front of a shuttered Wal-Mart supplier in Phnom Penh. The workers were protesting a sudden closure of the Kingsland apparel factory, which robbed them of both their jobs and tens of thousands in wages. They staged creative direct actions, including attempts to physically block the removal of sewing equipment.

Now, the Cambodians’ efforts to hold their former bosses accountable have paid off–in both money and political impact. Some two hundred Kingsland workers who produced clothing for H&M and Wal-Mart-affiliated brands for about $60 a month have won a settlement of an estimated $200,000.

The workers won the surprise victory against the global manufacturing Goliaths thanks in large part to savvy support from Cambodian and international labor groups. These allies helped spread the word globally by broadcasting the protestors’ video testimonials and marching to present a letter to Rajan Kamalanathan, Walmart’s Vice President of Ethical Sourcing.

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Bus Strike Exposes Social Divides in Singapore

4:09 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(xcode via flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

A spontaneous strike in November, the first in 26 years, shook up the tight social order of Singapore. As with many aspects of this gleaming global trade hub, the labor action was an import, of sorts. The agitators were Chinese bus drivers protesting the transit company SMRT’s policy of paying Chinese migrants less than other workers. Though the action was relatively limited, with about 171 drivers refusing to work, it did break the law and disrupted the city-state’s usual ultra-efficiency for two days.

In late February, a Singaporean court sentenced four strike leaders to jail for up to seven weeks, despite widespread criticism of the charges from human rights activists. Authorities had already sent a strong warning message by levying heavy fines on some participants and deporting 29 back to China.

For decades, Singapore has been an emblem of the post-colonial Pacific dream, boasting a robust economy, relatively wealthy citizens and a well-oiled bureaucracy. But the unrest among the migrant Chinese drivers, who make up nearly a quarter of SMRT’s total workforce of 2,000 drivers and earn significantly less than their coworkers, underscores the divide between the migrants, who comprise about 35 percent of the workforce, and the “native” Singaporeans, many of whom are uncomfortable with the growing reliance on foreign labor. Read the rest of this entry →

Cambodian Workers Wait for Wages in the Street, Shaming H&M and Wal-Mart

7:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Since early January, workers have maintained a 24-hour vigil in front of a Phnom Penh clothing factory to demand owed wages. (Still from Warehouse Workers United video.)

Originally posted at In These Times.

The women of the Kingsland clothing factory in Phnom Penh have been losing sleep over their jobs. It’s not the grueling hours and poverty wages that keep them awake, nor the threat of violent retaliation they’ve endured for trying to organize, nor even the unsanitary, dangerous working conditions they’ve often complained about. They’re used to all that; what they can’t stand is not being paid for their work.

Since the factory shut down weeks ago, workers have held a 24-hour vigil on the street to demand back wages and severance pay. The encampment marks their desperation to make their plight visible and to expose the open secret behind the underwear Kingsland has exported for years: that their cheap labor supplied the global retail empires of Wal-Mart and H&M.

Heoun Rapi, one of about 200 protesting workers, stated in a public declaration:

I am 6 months pregnant. It was difficult to work while I’m pregnant but even though it’s hard I need to struggle. I don’t know what to do. I can’t survive with the salary cut. I will protest like this until there is a solution. I want the factory and Wal-Mart to rush to give us our severance pay. Read the rest of this entry →

South Korea’s Boom Leaves Workers in the Dust

10:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Hyundai worker rally (via

Originally posted at In These Times

South Korea is sometimes touted as an exemplar of capitalist progress in Asia–a sophisticated economy with global brands and an educated populace (not to mention a stunning contrast to its miserable Communist analog to the north). But the lives of South Korean workers tell a different story. In recent months, they’ve been slammed by a much-maligned free trade deal, tussled with Hyundai in a bitter strike, and, according to an international assessment, become examples of how an economic boom can be a bust for labor.

According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), published as part of the World Trade Organization’s periodic Trade Policy Review, Korean workers have faced major challenges in organizing independent unions, and women, migrants, and other marginal workers face widespread discrimination and exploitation.

Though unionization is generally legal, in practice, labor activities are regularly suppressed by employers, and independent organizing may be preempted by “management-controlled” or “paper” unions. Restrictions on public-sector union activities–in the name of protecting the public–parallel the limits on labor activism imposed on U.S. civil servants, according to the report:

[T]here are numerous categories of public officials who are still denied their trade union rights, including managers, human resources personnel, personnel dealing with trade unions or industrial relations, and special public servants such as military, police, fire-fighters, politically-appointed officials, and high level public officials. … The law also prohibits public sector unionists from engaging in “acts in contravention of their duties prescribed in other laws and regulations when doing union activities”. This very broadly worded provision leaves the door open for abuses. Read the rest of this entry →

Unrest in Indonesia’s Mines: Local Chaos and Global Injustice

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Grasberg Mine (Wikimedia Commons)


Cross-posted from In These Times

Buried in Indonesia’s rich soil is a minefield of brutality, literally. Last year, the Grasberg mine of the Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold, one of the largest such operations in the world, shut down after thousands of workers launched a strike to demand higher wages. Work recently resumed, but the suffering continues while officials and multinationals maneuver to manage Southeast Asia’s resource curse.

In the midst of the massive strike, the company cited “sabotage and security concerns” and the blockade of a critical pipeline, and there were reports of internal conflicts among employees. But the worst impact of the chaos fell on the workers who were mysteriously gunned down. The exact source of the attacks is unclear, but they could be tied into a long-running struggle for control over local mineral assets between the police and military.

Mine workers weren’t the only ones being targeted. While strikers and police clashed in October, leading to the deaths of two unionists, indigenous activists in Jayapura, West Papua, were reportedly struck with batons and bullets at a pro-independence rally.

The unrest surrounding Grasberg exposed both the vulnerability of organized labor and the brute power of the industry. From its Phoenix headquarters, Freeport’s global empire stretches across various political hotspots: Indonesia, Peru, and Democratic Republic of Congo. Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Campaign Calls on Olympic Brand Companies to Play Fair

6:53 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Olympic product factory worker in China (Play Fair 2012)

Cross-posted at In These Times

The world’s greatest games are about to begin in London. But outside the sporting spectacle this summer, few will notice where the real cheating is going on: in Asian factories that churn out plush mascots and other Olympiad gear, corporations have freely exploited lax labor regulations. As the Olympics approach, activists are racing to push the brands behind the games to play by the rules of fair trade and human rights.

Trying to avoid an instant replay of London’s age of imperialism, the Play Fair 2012 campaign aims for accountability and transparency in the corporations scoring massive profits from cheap labor in the global south.

The campaign got a boost recently when organizers of the London Games agreed to take measures to uphold labor standards in the supply chain for Olympic paraphernalia. The agreement came in response to pressure from unions and other activist groups, who published a scathing report on the industry that churns out piles of fluffy “Wenlock and Mandeville” mascots, badges, keychains and other Olympic swag. The report, which investigated two Chinese factories producing London-2012 gear, depicts a global sweatshop on steroids:

as the demand for consumer merchandise mounts in the build up to the Olympics, workers must work excessively long hours of overtime, for very little pay, in often dangerous and exhausting working environments, with employers showing little regard for internationally recognised labour standards or national laws. Read the rest of this entry →

In All-India General Strike, Workers Go All Out Against Neoliberalism

2:58 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: World Federation of Trade Unions,

Cross-posted from In These Times

India’s economic ascent seems like it should be the envy of the world’s richest nations; with rocketing growth rates and gargantuan consumer and labor markets, India’s destiny as Asia’s next superstar looks beyond a doubt. Except Indian workers just gave the boosters of global capitalism a few million second thoughts.

The all-India general strike of February 28 brought together workers of various sectors and political stripes, civil servants along with rickshaw drivers, united under a banner of opposition to neoliberal policies of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. The labor movement of the world’s largest democracy issued a stark challenge to the idea of deregulation as an economic cure.

AFP quoted All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Gurudas Dasgupta: “We are fighting for our rights against a government that is anti-people.”

The core grievances center around government corruption, rising costs of living, labor violations, privatization, and the general rush to hand the economy over to the talons of free enterprise and shred the welfare state.

Public Services International, a global union that works with public employees in India, articulated a broad agenda of social and economic protection:

The common demands are (a) gaining the same rights and protection for temporary and contract workers as that of permanent workers, (b) raising and extending the minimum wage, (c) resisting the attacks on trade unions, (d) stopping price rise, (e) the creation of a national social security fund, (f) increase in pensions, (g) combating corruption.

In addition, public sector advocates oppose the “downsizing, outsourcing, contractualisation, corporatisation and privatisation of government function.” They demand protection for the right to strike, regulation of the use of “casual” labor, and measures to “Keep the public utilities in public hand.”

Other rallying points of the strike include pressing the government to ratify key international labor accords and to provide social security for all workers, including the irregular laborers often subjected to exploitation, discrimination and outright slavery. Read the rest of this entry →

Migrants Struggle in the Shadows of Asia’s Rising Tide of Inequality

2:18 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Migrants in Libya (Photo: UN)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The much-hyped “emerging economies” of Asia are supposed to be moving up on the world stage, but the labor migration they’ve set in motion has put the poorest workers on a downward spiral. Wherever migrants clamor for jobs in “more developed” countries, social crisis often follows.

A recent protest in Singapore suggests that inequality and unrest simmer even in Asia’s most prosperous enclaves. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Bangladeshi construction workers organized an eight-hour sit-in to demand justice for an all-but-invisible workforce:

The low-wage migrant workers, who, like the much of the city-state’s construction force are from Bangladesh, gathered in a vacant field near their dormitories Monday in Tampines, a part of east Singapore. They were protesting against their employers, Singapore-based Sunway Concrete Products Pte. Ltd and Techcom Construction & Trading Pte. Ltd. Both companies are contracted by the government Housing Development Board to build homes across the island.

The workers said their employers had not paid their salaries for four months, since November last year, despite repeated requests for payment. Initial investigations carried out by officials from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower confirmed that they had not been paid.

The workers also took issue with the food they were being served, which they said was inedible though paid from their own salaries, which are between S$2 – 2.50 (US$1.60 – $2) an hour, according to the workers.

Immigrants being cheated out of wages is a common story everywhere in the world (the U.S. included, of course), and lawmakers have little incentive to clamp down on unscrupulous employers when their economic growth figures are at stake. But Singapore might be more pressured to respond in this case because the labor dispute involves government contractors. Read the rest of this entry →

Nepal’s Migrants Lured By Empty Promises, Trapped by Bosses Abroad

12:15 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Image: International Trade Union Confederation)

Cross-posted from In These Times

It’s not hard to see why so many Nepalese workers leave their country to try their luck in the rich Gulf states; the sale of their “cheap labor” abroad seems like the only way to climb out of the global wealth gap. But their hope is buoyed on empty promises, according to an investigation by Amnesty International, which shows how Nepal’s migration system transforms its people into commodities on both sides of the labor trade.

The Amnesty report details scores of cases of inhumane treatment, including many migrants reporting they were “beaten, threatened and had their freedom of movement restricted by employers.” Concentrated in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and within a few low-wage sectors such as construction and domestic work, migration has grown exponentially over the past decade. The official count is more than 290,000 in 2010, but the real number could be as much as double that. The exodus was in part spurred by the chaos resulting from a long-running civil conflict that led to massive killing and displacement.

For a “developing country,” though, these migration patterns are not an example of the “free market” at work. The migrant industry is managed by brokers who funnel labor into foreign markets while authorities turn a blind eye to horrific working conditions, and the workers in turn pump out remittances that prop up Nepal’s economy.

In 2008-2009, the labor agencies sucked about $710,000 per day from migrants’ pockets, just for the privilege of toiling in a country where they might earn enough to live on. According to researchers, ‘Of the 150 returnees and prospective migrant workers interviewed for the report, more than 90 per cent of them said that they were deceived by recruitment agencies and brokers on the fundamental aspects of their contract.” These agencies have little oversight, despite labor laws governing migration. Authorities have generally failed to address abuse issues and hold agencies accountable for labor violations. Read the rest of this entry →