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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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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 →