An injured Cambodian worker escapes from riot police during clashes in Phnom Penh last November. Pic: AP.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said Cambodia’s garment workers are paid a fair wage, comparing the new monthly wage of $100 to Vietnam’s. He suggests the unions are too demanding and that investors will flee.  However, a researcher points out Vietnam is in flux too.

“In Vietnam there have been all kinds of strikes over the past 10 years. Tens of thousands of workers have gone on strikes.  It’s a very active worker community,” said labor researcher Dennis Arnold.  Arnold has written several reports on the garment industry in Southeast Asia and recently advised a fact-finding mission looking into the deaths of four Cambodian garment workers, with an additional one missing and assumed dead and over 30 injured.  The report, titled A Day that Shook Cambodia, found that Cambodia’s military provoked protestors and that some of the military did double duty by working for Yakjin Factory where the crackdown took place, in addition to their regular job.

The government has alleged that the strikers were “extremists” but Arnold points out that strikes are common in Vietnam as well but are relatively unreported in the media compared to Cambodia.

“Unions [in Vietnam] mediate between the government and workers, they aren’t true representatives of workers’ interests,“ explained Arnold.  “Yet you see a lot of ‘wildcat’ [worker-led, technically illegal] strikes there.”

However, he said “they don’t shoot their workers.” If that were to happen, Vietnam’s socialist image would take a hit.  “But [Vietnam’s workers] are not yet seen as a political threat.”

On Tuesday, February 25 Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested the authorities lift the ban on public assembly which has been in place since the early January crackdown. Workers had been calling for a living wage of $160 a month and an end to the use of short-term three-month contracts that have plagued the industry since the 2005 WTO free trade agreement was adopted. Though wages have increased in Cambodia over the years, inflation has negated much of this value and the short-term contracts have led to job insecurity. As the Premier spoke from Sihanoukville, a boycott of over-time was underway in Phnom Penh as independent trade unions have been strategizing ways to get around the ban.

Cambodian police and protesters face off on the streets of Phnom Penh in early January. Pic: AP.

Similarly, wages in Vietnam have risen 100 percent in the past 14 years of development but high inflation has squeezed workers’ gains.

In order to keep “widespread unrest” at bay, wages in Vietnam are raised every year by the government, explained Arnold.  “That said, decent livelihood is a problem there too.”

Last year a labor union representative in Vietnam was quoted in national media as saying: “Why do workers at footwear, garment and construction companies become skinny after three or four years?  Because they work too hard without being able to afford meals that provide a minimal amount of nutrition.” Labor research found Vietnam’s workers’ salary met just 50 to 70 percent of their basic needs.

In 2013 the minimum wage for factory workers in Vietnam topped off at 2.35 million VND ($110.45) for urban areas like HCMC and Hanoi, while rural areas were paid as low as 1.65 million VND ($77.55).

Cambodia utilizes a national rate for factory work with most garment factories located in or around Phnom Penh.  Because of the short-term contracts and inflation many Cambodians are migrating to nearby Thailand to take advantage of the 300 baht ($10) a day minimum wage, according to Tola Moeun of Community Legal Education Center.  He expressed concern about Cambodian migrant workers’ lack of rights abroad and in the country, and he is not the only one.

“Do not think the Thai state would use the military forces to crack down on workers if they demand to increase their wages,” said Pranom Somwong, a labor activist and consultant to Clean Clothes Campaign in Thailand.  She said both the Cambodian government and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) were repressive to workers. However, she points out “if Cambodian migrants in Thailand protest then we will not be sure what will happen since migrants do not have rights to freedom of assembly in Thailand.”

The lack of labor rights has become a self-perpetuating cycle as Cambodian women leave the country for better opportunities, yet are unable to join unions abroad and face labor abuses.  Meanwhile underage girls from rural areas travel to Phnom Penh and fill their places as Cambodia’s garment industry has had a shortage of workers.

“Certainly in some cases [migrating to Thailand] does improve [their lives] because they have earn more and are able to support their life but in most of the cases migrants still complain about they are not actually getting paid 300 baht for working eight hours, as in some areas they have to work more than 12 hours to get 300 baht which violates the labor law,” explained Pranom.  Recruitment fees that Cambodian migrants must pay for also take a cut from their pay.

With Cambodian migrant workers being unable join unions in neighboring countries, freedom of assembly at home is crucial. Tola said not only was the ban on assembly in violation of Cambodia’s Constitution and the Peaceful Assembly Law, “[it is against] other international covenants and conventions regarding freedom of assembly and expression.”

Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, agrees.  She also said Cambodia’s Peaceful Assembly Law stipulates the authority’s role in protests is to “ensure distance” between different groups, who themselves are required to protest peacefully.

According to the fact-finding mission undertaken by East Asian trade unions and labor researchers, garment workers were protesting peacefully until they were provoked by the military in front of Yakjin Factory where the crackdown took place.

While Hun Sen has made a verbal commitment to lift the ban on assembly, there are indications that other forms of peaceful strikes are being hampered.  Since Monday, workers who can afford to have joined in a boycott of overtime in support of the 21 detained workers and activists arrested in early January (two have since been released on bail).  Tola reported that the military patrolled factory areas during the boycott, which he saw as a form of intimidation of workers wanting to leave factories after their regular shifts ended.  He underscored that “overtime should be voluntary”, not coerced.

While the Cambodian government says independent unions incited the unrest, labor leader Rong Chhun, president of CCU was quoted in the fact-finding report as saying: “A well prepared struggle is better; if they are led by the union, we would have a clearer strategy. But workers couldn’t wait for that.

“The struggle happened by itself, it came from the bottom up, not from the top down. There was no need for them to organise this from the top down. Yet, the role of the top leaders is to advise and support the local leaders. The use of social media has allowed a very quick mobilisation of workers. The news spread very quickly, so they came out very quickly as well.”