Police block a protest march in Phnom Penh. Photo: Luc Forsyth
Cambodia: deaths follow union demands for just £25 a week
Amidst all the coverage of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh last year, the situation in Cambodia has got less coverage. Over the last fortnight, though, Cambodian textile workers, 90% of whom are women, have been killed protesting for a £25 a week minimum wage.
In fact, Cambodia has been heading for boiling point for months, with persistent strikes. Employers in the textile sector maintain that 25% of working days over the last two years have been lost in strike action. There are reports that the disputes have turned violent on both sides although the role of agents provocateurs has not been discounted and everyone’s agreed only the authorities have guns, and only the protesters have been killed. After a group of unions declared a widespread strike for a higher minimum wage and demonstrated in the capital Phnom Penh, government forces shot dead at least 3 (unions claim more), injured many, and arrested leaders of a number of textile and general unions. These weren’t the first deaths or arrests.
The UN special rapporteur on Cambodia and Amnesty International have called for an investigation into the most recent killings, and the ILO has called for Government, employers and unions to return to the negotiating table, as well as urging the Government to establish better wage-fixing machinery. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has demanded an end to the violence and for those in the police and military responsible for it to be held accountable, as well as medical treatment for the injured and the release of trade unionists arrested, as well as a decent minimum wage for textile workers.
Strikes in individual companies like the long running SL Garment Processing dispute which lasted from 12 August to 4 December have been widened to cover the whole industry and employers have responded by closing factories leaving most of the 400,000 strong textiles workforce idle (along with many of the 300,000 estimated to work in ancillary sectors.)
Cambodia’s textile sector generates well over $5bn a year in exports, the majority going to the USA and Europe (and most of the rest to Japan and Korea), with big name brands like Adidas, Asics, Gap, Levi’s, Nike and Puma sourcing clothes and shoes. Textiles account for 80% of Cambodia’s exports. Cambodian employers organised in the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) claim that they cannot raise wages without agreement from the brands, although unions don’t believe that should let local employers off the hook.
Everyone has agreed in negotiations that the minimum wage should double from its late 2013 level of $80 a month to $160 (which works out at under £25 a week: I’m using dollars because even the Cambodian textile workers use them on their placards, showing just how important the US market is.) But unions are demanding the rise take place immediately, whereas employers want to stage the rise over 4-5 years, and the Government originally offered only $95 a month for 2014, raised fairly swiftly to $100.
To put all those figures in perspective, though, the $5bn a year value of Cambodia’s existing exports (which obviously also includes machinery, raw materials, taxes and other costs) works out at $500 a month for each of the 700,000 workers in the domestic supply chain, so the union wage demand looks easily affordable even without increasing the cost of the goods exported: that means without eating into multinational profits or adding to high street prices, not that that wouldn’t make it easier.
Although the minimum wage is the main issue in the dispute, there are also concerns about the use of child labour, work intensification and long hours, as well as appalling levels of harassment at work and victimisation of union leaders. Stay up to date with developments in Cambodia with LabourStart (hat tip for many of the links in this article.)