Cambodian garment workers protest in Phnom Penh on January 2nd. (Photo: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)
Labour rights groups and trade unions from several countries, including Canada's Maquila Solidarity Network, are condemning the recent violence against garment workers in Cambodia and are demanding that global clothing brands act more forcefully to effect changes in the country's factories.
Cambodian garment workers went on strike on December 24, demanding the monthly minimum wage be doubled — to $174. In the following weeks, protests began to draw tens of thousands of people also calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985 and whose party retained power in July following disputed elections. Events culminated on January 3, when police fired on the protesters, killing at least four people. The crackdown brought an end to the strike, with garment workers receiving a 25 per cent raise that pushes the monthly minimum wage to $110.
In the aftermath of the violence, seven companies whose products are made in Cambodian factories, including H&M, Gap and Adidas, wrote an open letter to President Hun Sen condemning the killings. According to Bloomberg, the letter stated in part: “The only way to resolve this dispute is to cease all forms of violence, and for stakeholders to enter into good-faith negotiations.”
The letter was immediately criticized, though, both because certain companies — like Disney and Nike — didn't sign on and because labour groups said it didn't go far enough in its condemnation. Specifically, David Welsh of the NGO Solidarity Center told the Wall Street Journal that the letter failed to mention 23 people detained in an unknown location during the protests.
Yesterday, labour rights groups also called for clothing brands to support the workers' original wage increase demand and to push the government to reinstate the right to strike and assemble.
“Whilst our primary concern is the safety and well-being of those workers who have been detained, we are also calling on brands to look at the long-term implications of their purchasing practices,” said Jeroen Merk of the Clean Clothes Campaign in a press release. “Until brands recognize that these practices contribute to the poverty wages received by workers in Cambodia, and in turn the demonstrations we are witnessing, then no brand sourcing from Cambodia can claim to be acting fairly or decently.”
The garment industry accounts for 20 per cent of Cambodia's GDP and 80 per cent of its exports, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. As the industry has grown, workers have become increasingly emboldened, launching 131 strikes last year, not including the actions in December.
For now, though, they are returning to work. "We don't want to see more lives lost through violent suppression," Ken Chheanglang, vice president of the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia, told the Wall Street Journal. "We appeal to workers to return to work and earn their wages first, while we decide our next strategy."
For more background on the garment industry in Cambodia see this October feature from the Toronto Star.