Groups of garment workers poured out of factories in Phnom Penh and around the country Wednesday to demand a “living” monthly minimum wage of $177 for the industry, joined by supporters picketing outside embassies and brand shops in Australia and Europe.
As mass demonstrations by garment factory workers continued Monday, the government laid out plans to bring an end to the labor unrest within the next three days, including suing union leaders in the courts and mobilizing security forces to take unspecified action.
The Council of Ministers sent a letter to Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng on Monday recommending that if demonstrations don’t stop, the leaders of five nongovernment aligned unions leading the strikes should have their licenses revoked and be brought to court, while the leader of a sixth unlicensed union should be prosecuted in court immediately.
Signed by Council of Ministers’ Secretary of State Ngor Hongly, the letter offers a five-step plan to the Ministry of Labor for how to deal with the nationwide strikes.
If union leaders do not immediately stop their demonstrations, the Labor Ministry should revoke their union licenses. If demonstrations continue, the letter suggests that union leaders should be brought to court.
The letter recommends Thursday as a deadline for workers to return to factories, and for factories to reopen, and because the Cambodian Confederation of
Unions (CCU) is not registered with the government, the Labor Ministry should immediately file a court complaint against its leader, Rong Chhun.
The letter also instructs armed forces to “prevent and take action against anarchists who instigate and threaten workers to stop working and destroy factory property.”
Lastly, the letter recommends that the Ministry of Labor organize a round table meeting to discuss raising the minimum wage based on “conditions that could be acceptable.”
“The demand of an immediate raise to $160 is completely impossible,” the letter states.
Demonstrations continued Monday with more than 5,000 striking garment workers marching to the Council of Ministers at 12:30 p.m. to deliver their demand that the government raises the monthly minimum wage to $160.
More than 200 riot police standing behind a razor-wire barricade stopped the protesters just short of the Council of Ministers building.
The demonstration had begun before 9 a.m. at the Ministry of Labor, where union leaders were summoned to discuss the strikes and protests, which were launched in response to the government’s decision last week to raise the minimum wage by $15 to $95.
The striking workers, who marched to the Labor Ministry from factories across the city, formed a crowd that stretched for about half a kilometer on Russian Boulevard, completely blocking traffic and the entrances of nearby shops, government buildings and universities.
Following the three-hour meeting at the ministry, Oum Mean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Labor, said that no progress had been made in resolving the workers’ grievances because the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) refused to attend the talks.
“We didn’t get any result from the meeting today because one party [GMAC] didn’t join us,” Mr. Mean said, adding that he believed an increase to the minimum wage was possible.
“I believe that the minimum wage can be raised more, but the amount of the wage raise depends on negotiations from all sides,” Mr. Mean said, adding that a commitment from major clothing brands to raise their retail prices could help the situation.
Ken Loo, secretary-general of GMAC, said that the association of factory owners would only participate in further negotiations over the minimum wage once order was restored in the industry.
“We are the victims,” Mr. Loo said.
“Before we get involved in any discussion…we need to see that our workers are guaranteed security and that our property is secure,” he said.
There have been reports from GMAC in the past five days of groups of workers breaking into factories in order to encourage workers to join demonstrations.
Emerging from the talks at the Ministry of Labor shortly before noon, the leaders of six of the country’s nongovernment aligned unions addressed the assembled workers.
“Raising the minimum wage is up to the government, it doesn’t depend on the employers,” said Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union, speaking atop a lorry through loudspeakers.
“The government should intervene and raise the wage to $160. If the Ministry of Labor doesn’t find a solution, we will all continue to protest,” he added.
Taking the microphone shortly before 12:30 p.m., Mr. Chhun, president of the CCU, told workers to march to the Council of Ministers. Workers cheered and began to slowly make their way—on foot, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, lorries and trailers—down the east-bound lane of Russian Boulevard.
But the workers came to a halt just after the Ministry of Defense, where riot police had unfurled a razor-wire barricade across Russian Boulevard.
Once the workers massed behind the barricade and began chanting their demands, the municipal police, dressed in full riot gear, shifted formation and stood two and three rows deep parallel to the barricades.
A tense two-hour standoff ensued, with union leaders and workers railing against the government for failing to pay workers a living wage.
Sam Sophal, a human rights officer with the U.N. in Cambodia, who acted as a mediator between police and protesters, said that police asked workers to move their demonstration to nearby Freedom Park, but union leaders refused.
With thousands of workers spread across Russian Boulevard and surrounding gardens, Mr. Chhun demanded to meet with an official from the Council of Ministers. At about 3 p.m., Keo Remy, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers walked through a gap in the police barricade to meet with Mr. Chhun, who was waiting on the other side.
Mr. Remy was handed a microphone and began to explain the government’s position.
“I will talk with the Ministry of Labor to find a solution to your demands,” Mr. Remy said.
“The government is concerned about your living standard, but the government is not the factory owner. The government only has the duty to find a compromise,” he said, at which point a water bottle, thrown from the crowd, hit him in the head.
Mr. Remy collected himself before walking back across the barricade.
Mr. Chhun was unimpressed with Mr. Remy’s promise.
“This is only a trick to delay and the government has no intention of finding a solution to workers’ demands,” he said, adding that workers would bring their demonstration back to the Council of Ministers today.
Workers began to disperse at about 3 p.m., and police took down their barricade and headed home by 4 p.m.
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