Cambodian riot police prepare to confront with garment workers near a factory on the Stung Meanchey complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia last week. Pic: AP.

A week ago today Cambodian police shot and killed five protesting garment factory employees. In Phnom Penh, workers, activists and labor groups are still struggling to make sense of the violence

GRASSROOTS protestors, folk songs and labor rights activists converged at Canadia Industrial Park in Phnom Penh last week as garment workers campaigned to raise their minimum wage from $80 a month to $160.  After the Ministry of Labor approved a wage increase to $95 a month, trade unions and workers took to the streets, demanding $160. According to rights activists, the approved $95 wage is simply not enough to live on. So the campaign continued, galvanized by the support of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which had joined the protest in support.

Yet the peaceful protest ended in riots as the military closed in, shot and killed five garment factory workers and injured over 30 others on January 3. A ban on gatherings of groups larger than 10 has been put in place. Twenty-three protesters and labor leaders were missing for a week after their arrest.

“Garment workers and sex workers are blamed as causing public disorder and social insecurity when they organize and protest for better working conditions,” Kun Sothary, of the Messenger Band, told Asian Correspondent. The Messenger Band is an all-woman group made up of six former garment workers which collects the oral histories of garment workers, farmers and sex workers.

“We are all the same victims of a free trade system and development that is not ethical. We learned of the common problems of garment workers, sex workers and farmers through our field visits… poverty, exploitation and human right violation,” Kun explained.

Kun said the Messenger Band had supported garment workers by joining them in front of the Ministry of Labor.  They distributed printed lyrics of songs and sang with them.

Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator for the Worker’s Information Centre, a group which helps garment workers organize, said they had witnessed peaceful protests and singing and dancing when they visited the site Thursday morning, the day before violence broke out.  “I was so shocked when I got several calls from a few workers telling about the violence happening in the evening of January 2 and continued until midnight.”

Garment factory workers on a lunch break in Phnom Penh. Pic: Michelle Tolson.

Police had stormed another protest in Phnom Penh at a different factory, violently beating labor leaders and monks and arresting them. The oppressive tactics were swiftly shared on social media through smart phones, which has become the preferred source for information for Cambodia’s youth as the government owns over 90 percent of media outlets.  Chinese-made smart phones cost as little as $30, making accessing Facebook on the go more affordable.

Chrek said: “This turned into serious violence the next day. It is very hard to know who is who under this chaotic situation.  I don’t agree with any actions involving violence. Violence is not the solution, instead it just causes more trouble. I believe in non-violent actions as the only way to succeed.”

By Friday morning last week, the previously peaceful protest at Canadia Industrial Park had become, according to the authorities, become violent, with protesters armed with Molotov cocktails and machetes.

While organizers and activists struggle to understand what happened, the government has labeled those shot, arrested and killed as “extremists.” One thing activists are certain of is that the garment workers had a legitimate concern.

Chrek said the current wage violates Cambodia’s labor law, citing research.  The 1997 law states that minimum wage “must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity.”

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said the $80 monthly minimum wage is for eight hours of work, six days a week, with overtime required so garment workers can make enough to rent a simple room near the factories which shared with other workers.

The song ‘Problems at Our Rented Rooms’ from the Messenger Band describe these difficulties.  The lyrics note, “At the end of the month, if we do not pay all our rent, the owner notes it and charges us interest. As interest they double what we cannot pay, we can’t complain and next month they demand it all.”

In order to eat on their wages, four women will share a meal meant for one person using rice to stretch it. Fainting at factories is common due to long hours and lack of food.

Tola said, “After we complained about mass fainting and short contracts, after we started to document this, they started to reduce the contract, while the suppliers have said they don’t have control over this.  Then they agreed to short-term contracts which are in violation of labor laws.”

Prior to the violence, Swedish clothing giant H&M stated that it would work with labor leaders to improve labor conditions but had not yet put a timeline on the changes.

“We are pushing H&M to provide free meals through a healthy meal program,” said Tola. “We are still not 100 percent satisfied with H&M because of low pay and the short-term contracts for the factories.”

Many women are now migrating to Malaysia and Thailand for better pay, which leaves factories short of workers.  “We also notice there is an increase in under-age workers so we want restrictions on the hours worked and the work environment, a 6-hour limit maybe,” added Tola.

Workers also pile into trucks filled dangerously full to commute to the factory from the outskirts of the city because they can’t afford to travel safely.

“Overtime work keeps us busy because we need this money to pay our families,” laments another Messenger Band song called ‘The Suffering of Workers.’

Garment workers struggle to send money home to their families in the countryside, who are often in debt.  Most workers themselves are in debt at about $50 each, according to Tola’s research, and often just manage to make the monthly interest payments which are $10 due to unregulated interest rates.  If they find out they are pregnant, they usually opt to get abortions, fearing that they will lose their work contracts.

The lyrics to the Messenger Band’s song, ‘Suffer from Privatization,’ deftly described this impact without criticizing the government.

“Oh private companies please allow us to survive… The loans look good but in fact they are a chain around our necks.  We must stand up for our freedom.”

While Tola, Chrek and Kun understand the misery that garment workers face, they are unclear how the violence and riots started.

Some activists allege agitators were used to stir up violence in protestors as a reason to shoot at them.  Mysterious men without uniforms have used sling shots and tazors on protesters at previous demonstrations.

Thida Khus, Director for SILAKA civil society organization, has organized human rights observers at previous protests.  She said her team had noticed these agitators before.

Also called Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “Third Hand,” the theory has been passed around on social media.  Mu Sochua mentioned it on her public facebook page as well after the shootings.

While agitators are blamed for stirring up violence, foreign interests are tied to the crackdown. South Korean owners of garment factories were said to have asked for military intervention against protestors, according to Asian TNCs Monitoring Network. In an email, the group wrote that Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc. had used their connections to break the strike.  This was confirmed in a media report that translated the South Korean Embassy’s website, saved in a screen shot.

However, Asian TNCs Monitoring Network pointed out Yakjin is 70 percent owned by the U.S.-based Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.  The Carlyle Group acquired majority ownership of Yakjin Trading Group December 24, 2013, according to a press release.

In explaining the challenge of achieving justice for factory workers, Tola said, “All garment industries have links with high ranking officials. Because of the culture of impunity that is why they can do as they like without thinking.  The root cause is the corrupted government. If you change this it can get better, not only for workers but also for business.”