Cambodian soldiers block garment workers at a strike in front of a factory of Yak Jin in Kambol village, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia in December. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Quinlan

In the battle for power within Cambodia’s newly competitive political landscape constituencies have become like chess pieces, with varying levels power and possibility. Few pieces have the potential decisive power in Cambodia’s ongoing political deadlock as the nation’s restive garment workers.

Just months ago garment workers were on strike and swelling the opposition’s street protests. It’s no coincidence that since the bloody January crackdown on Cambodia’s garment workers the streets have been largely quiet.

“Three months after these events in January people are still in prison, there really hasn’t been movement on the minimum wage. Any reinstatement that have taken place have largely as a result of private pressure,” says, David Welsh, Cambodia program director for the Solidarity Center. He added: “Not a dollar of compensation has been given to those that were killed or injured. If anything, things have moved backwards.”

This week opposition leader Sam Rainsy was again pursuing another piece in Cambodia’s political game – the international community. While long derided for his devotion to courting Western governments, the last few weeks have seen some pay-off.

On Monday, the conservative Australian politician and government whip Phillip Ruddock called Cambodia a “one party state” and expressed concern about the deaths and injuries that resulted from the crackdown.

His former colleague from across the political aisle, and one of the architects of the Cambodia’s peace process, Garth Evans, went further in an opinion piece recently, writing:

“I know Hun Sen and worked well with him in the past. I have resisted strong public criticism until now, because I thought there was hope for both him and his government. But their behavior has now moved beyond the civilised pale. It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated, and sanctioned by the international community.”

With options limited at home and this sort of encouragement it’s perhaps unsurprising Sam Rainsy headed to Australia and New Zealand press the opposition’s case.

Despite the impotence of donors in a country as dependent on aid as Cambodia, the end of the political stalemate is going to be brought about by Cambodians and the opposition’s chance of having the type of change they want depends heavily on garment workers.

The striking garment workers were a massive boost to the opposition efforts to unseat the 28 year old government of Hen Sen. While their protests had been large and sustained it was garment workers that made them truly frightening for the ruling government.

It’s not only the fact that clothing is Cambodia’s largest export industry, worth more than US$5 billion a year, or the massive numbers of workers living on the edge of the capital Phnom Penh that make them so influential. They’ve also had a more subtle long-term influence that has been a critical factor in shaping Cambodia’s political map long before the opposition became competitive at the last election.

The estimated 400,000 to 650,000 garment workers, mainly young women, are mostly internal migrants who hale from across Cambodia’s rural heartland. Before the last election this formed an isolated and fairly reliable vote bank for the ruling CPP.

But along with the gradual proliferation of communications technology, young garment workers returning home have become a very personal and effective link between traditionally isolated ‘peasant’ communities and the modern capital. One that circumvents the government’s hold on traditional media.

Even more concrete is the extended families of garment workers, estimated at 2 million, which are reliant on the garment workers’ pay checks, giving them a direct stake in far away battles.

But these more material concerns also cut the other way, limiting possible action, as recently illustrated by the majority of unions cancelling a planned stay-at -home strike. Last week’s strike was called off by unions due to workers’ concerns about having money to return to the provinces to celebrate Khmer New Year with their families.

The politicisation of workers is inherently threatening to governments and always has been. In January, not long after the crackdown, a small crowd marked the 10 year anniversary of the murder of an icon of the Cambodian union movement, Chea Vichea, who did as much as anyone to bring about a organised labour movement in this country.

Anyone unfamiliar with the events surrounding his murder would do well to watch the sobering documentary “Who killed Chea Vichea”, though it remains banned in Cambodia.

When interviewed by the Phnom Penh Post, the documentary’s producer Rich Garella observed, “It’s simply not true that every person is replaceable and the regime here knows that.”

The union movement recovered from his loss and has continued without him, though it’s unclear when or if it will regain the momentum lost after the violence and arrests of January.

David Welsh remains optimistic: “What form it takes remains to be seen but there’s no question there needs to be movement on the minimum wage issue and I suspect pretty strongly there will be.”