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.
Cambodian unions organized the “Day of Action” to coincide with the final stage of their negotiations with the government and factory owners for a new minimum wage for garment workers, now set at $100. The factories and government want a more modest $10 raise, and a vote on the issue by the tri-party Labor Advisory Committee could happen as soon as September 27, with the new wage to take effect on January 1.
Workers who joined the rallies donned bright orange T-shirts printed especially for the occasion with “We Want $177” on the fronts and backs, while handing out stickers and holding up banners accusing some of the brands they make clothes for, including Zara and Puma, of “starving” Cambodian workers.
About 300 workers joined the rally at Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park, near the site where military police shot into crowds of protesters demanding a $160 minimum wage on January 3, killing at least five workers and injuring dozens more.
The government and factories say that, with bonuses, allowances and average overtime, garment workers already earn more than enough to cover their basic expenses and to send money home, and that a sudden $77 raise would force many factories to shut down. Unions say workers are struggling to get by while factory owners are making a hefty profit from their labor.
“We want a higher wage because today we don’t have enough money to support ourselves because everything is very expensive, like rent, electricity, water and food,” said Pao Sithorn, who marched with the crowd down the factory-lined road through the industrial park.
Long Dy, who joined her, said whatever salary raises workers get are always wiped out by rising prices, making it impossible to ever get ahead.
“When they increase our wages, everything in the market gets more expensive…so the increase is worthless,” she said. “If you don’t want to increase our wages, don’t let the prices go up.”
She hoped the united front would convince the government and factories to meet their demand.
“It’s easy to break one chopstick, but you cannot break a bundle,” she said. “I hope the campaign will put pressure on the buyers and the government to raise our wages.”
Ath Thorn, president of the largest independent union in the country, joined the workers at Canadia.
“We come together, the unions, federations and associations, for the campaign to demand $177…to show that $177 is what the workers want in order to have a decent living,” he told reporters in the midst of the rally. “We will send this message to the employers and the government and the buyers.”
Mr. Thorn is on trial in three separate cases involving his union activities and is under court order not to join any public gatherings or to meet with his union members. But Mr. Thorn declined to comment on his flagrant breach of the order Wednesday, and court officials could not be reached.
The eight unions that organized the campaign claimed that some 30,000 workers joined similar rallies at about 200 factories in provinces around the country, but the numbers could not be verified.
At Canadia, most of the thousands of workers employed at factories in the park did not join the rally, deciding instead to look on from the sides.
Si Neang said she wanted to join in but was too scared, still cowed by memories of the military police’s fatal shooting of workers in January and wary of the dozen or so armed soldiers keeping an eye on the rally Wednesday.
“I really want to join, but I’m afraid something might happen like on January 2 and 3, when authorities killed many workers,” she said. “How can we join them when there are soldiers here with AKs? I’m worried about my safety because there are many soldiers.”
A trio of international union groups helped to rally support for the campaign abroad.
The Geneva-based IndustriALL Global Union said it led a delegation to the Cambodian Embassy in Geneva to support the Cambodian workers and their demand for a $177 minimum wage, and that the International Trade Union Confederation did the same in Brussels.
A spokeswoman for IndustriALL said affiliates in Melbourne demonstrated in front of an H&M store and unionists in Canberra picketed the Cambodian Embassy there. A small group picketed an Adidas store in London and IndustriALL said some demonstrations were also expected in the U.S.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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