Pressure, threats for Cambodian garment workers ahead of election
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Pressure, threats for Cambodian garment workers ahead of election

GARMENT workers in Cambodia are facing pressure from their bosses to vote in the upcoming July general election amid calls to boycott the one-sided contest in protest of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eradication of an opposition.

Nikkei Asian Review (NAR) spoke to several factory workers who said they have been coerced by employers to cast their vote of “face consequences” despite their party of choice, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), being dissolved in November.

Only one credible party remains in the national elections – Hun Sen’s own party, the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). While a collection of small parties are on the ballot to give the illusion of democracy, most of these are considered puppet parties of the CPP or are unable to mobilise any significant number of voters.

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Garment workers welcome Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen during a rally in Kandal province, Cambodia May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“I heard that we need to show the management team our fingers. If they are not inked, we will face problems,” factory worker, Sreymom, who voted for CNRP in 2013, told NAR. “If the management tells us when to leave, I have to obey.”

The garment industry is the backbone of the Cambodian economy, making up 72 percent of Cambodia’s exports and employing almost 850,000 people. That’s 86 percent of all those employed in the industrial sector, according to a 2018 report from the Ministry of Industry and Handicrafts.

Hun Sen has put significant efforts into winning over the workers as part of his campaign, giving rally speeches at factories and promising cash “gifts” to those in attendance.

SEE ALSO: Has Chinese investment made Hun Sen immune to sanctions?

Given the lack of a credible opposition, the former Khmer Rouge commander looks set to extend his 33-year rule. But he needs a high voter turn out to give his win legitimacy in the face of mounting international criticism.

Seeing an opportunity to rattle Hun Sen’s grip on power, former CNRP members – many of whom are living in exile fearing political reprisal – are urging the Cambodian people to boycott election day.

But as garment workers have found it is not that easy if you’re actions could have serious real life consequences.

Sreymom told NAR that she plans to return to her home province of Prey Veng on the Vietnamese border rather face the critics.

“I am afraid they will label me as an opposition supporter,” she said. “These days, you don’t want to be outspoken or in the spotlight alone. You need to follow the trend so that you are not targeted.”

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Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) is welcomed by garment workers during a rally in Kandal province, Cambodia, July 4, 2018. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

That fear comes not only from threats in this election cycle, but from the violent crackdown on post-election protests in 2014.

The anti-government protests were triggered by allegations of election fraud and continued for months before a government crackdown in January led to the deaths of four people and the clearing of the main protest camp.

As election day looms just over three weeks away, corruption watchdog Transparency International has asked voters to consider their behaviour on July 29, but urged them to exercise their political rights.

“Cambodian voters can decide what are the most appropriate actions they could do for the upcoming elections by exercising their political rights,” Executive Director Kol Preap told Asian Correspondent.

“Whatever they chose to do, they need to send a strong message to the political leaders of their desire and concern for Cambodia.”