By SRP Cabinet,
On 9 January 2008, two Members of Parliament from Sweden, Mr. Kent Harstedt and Ms. Magdalena Strejffert from the Social Democratic Party, and Mr. Johan Mostrom from the Olof Palme Foundation, went to Kampong Cham province to meet with rubber plantations workers in Chamcar Leu district. They were accompanied by Sam Rainsy and other SRP Members of Parliament and were welcome at Ta'ong commune by about a hundred workers and worker representatives from several rubber plantations. The Swedish parliamentarians saw with their own eyes the misery of rubber plantations workers
16th June, 2006
Misery of Rubber Plantation Workers
Last 10th June, I visited the district of Chamcar Leu in the province of Kompong Cham where I was elected. In this district located about 100 kilometers to the northeast of Phnom Penh, rubber plantations extend beyond sight. They employ thousands of workers whom no one knows much about, specifically about their living and working conditions. If one takes the time to learn more, one discovers that these workers' villages disseminated in these plantations form a world apart. Even though I am used to see poverty in Cambodia, I was struck by the misery which prevails in these villages. Children are in larger number than anywhere else. Clearly malnourished, they are skinny and pale looking. The rags they wear do not even cover half of their bodies. They play and live in the dirt. Most of them have never seen a school.
We are in the Chamcar Andaung commune, the location of a large plantation of the same name. It is almost five o’clock in the afternoon. The workday had ended (it starts everyday at 5 a.m.). A small crowd is gathering at my arrival at Village 33. Since the French colonial times, the workers' villages do not have a name but they bear a number indicating the plantation lots in which they are located. The village looks like a small island lost in the middle of a dark ocean of aligned trees extending beyond sight. Here, everybody earns a living from latex (rubber), a milky material secreted from the trunk of the rubber trees (Hevea tree) that are bled at regular intervals according to very precise rules.
Attracted by a microphone recently installed for the occasion, the workers, men and women, the majority of them young, came out from their small dilapidated homes; they were preceded by a crowd of noisy children. I spoke in front of Phan Ret’s house, a 20-year-old young worker whose husband, Plech Nol, also a worker, was killed last 14th April by plantation guards for stealing a few kilograms of raw rubber. The widow, a small woman who herself looks like a child, dragged two children after her.
I invited the workers to present their problems to the representatives, Mao Munyvann, Thak Lany and myself, who had come to meet them. I felt as if I was hearing stories right out of Emile Zola or Charles Dickens’ books on the condition of workers during the 19th century:
1. Starvation wage: The word which often comes round during the talks is hunger. Each worker receives a fix daily salary of 3,000 riels (US $0.73). There are no weekends or holidays. One day of absence carries a penalty of 10,000 riels ($2.43) which is taken out of the salary paid at the end of the month. The fixed monthly salary of 90,000 riels ($21.90), for 30 days of work, must also be used by the workers to purchase their work tools needed for latex collection (bleeding knife, collecting cups, ladder). Besides the fixed salary of 3,000 riels per day, the workers can also get a productivity bonus of up to 1,500 riels ($0.36) per day depending on the amount of rubber collected. In the best case scenario (i.e. for a strong and solid man who is never ill), a worker can only earn 4,500 riels ($1.09) per day at most which is not sufficient to feed a family. They would need two to three times this amount. This leads to the hunger which torments them all the time…
2. No social protection: A worker who falls from his/her ladder during the bleeding of a tree trunk from several meters above ground, can easily break a leg or pelvis. He/she must personally bear the entire medical cost from the accident. The victims are mainly women, this can result in dramatic family consequence for these very poor families.
3. Barbaric punishments: A worker who is accused of selling some pieces of dry rubber outside the plantation to supplement his/her meager salary, is severely punished: he/she is arrested by the plantation guards and beaten; he/she can then be tortured with electricity and confined half naked (an even greater humiliation for women) for several days in an iron cage. If he/she does not answer quickly enough when summoned by the guards, he/she is shot dead, just like Plech Nol, the husband of Phan Ret. Since the beginning of this year, two workers have been shot dead and another has been seriously injured by a bullet. No sanction was given to the guards.
4. Child labor: To help increase the family income, children usually go with their parents to work. They help their parents reach the daily bonus of 1,500 riels, or they collect small pieces of coagulum (1) for sale for a few pennies a piece. This explains why the children do not attend schools, thus perpetuating the cycle of misery. Hunger push these children to steal food in the neighborhood, and they are severely punished when caught stealing a few bananas in the neighboring farm.
5. A climate of violence and fear: The workers and their families depend entirely on their employer who manages not only the plantations where they work, but also the villages where they live. Because of the total control, the geographic isolation of the workers, and the feudal mentality which still remains in Cambodia, the rubber plantations form special communities where a climate of violence and fear rules. This climate is maintained by the guards who form a kind of a private militia. These armed guards terrorize the workers and their families; they do not hesitate to use torture and are also trigger-happy. In addition to the workers who are shot or wounded with bullets (see above), another act of violence took place this year in the same Chamcar Andaung plantation: on 10th January, two women “caught stealing food” were assassinated (2).
6. Layoff without warning, without compensation: I learnt that in Village 35, some 200 workers were laid off without warning, without compensation nor any help in finding another job. This took place a few years ago when their employer decided, for technical or commercial reasons, to cut down all the rubber trees located in the plantation lot where they worked. In this village forgotten by the employer, which I also visited, misery is even more severe than in Village 33.
In these rubber plantations, work consists mainly of bleeding the trees. While leaving the village at dusk, I realize that most of all, it was the workers who are bled.
(1) Coagulum: stuck on tree trunks or spread on the ground, these pieces of coagulum (solidified latex) are waste resulting from multiple small losses occurring during the industrial collection and gathering of rubber which was originally liquid.
(2) They were Nay Theng, 32-year-old, and Nay Sokhoeun, 44-year-old. They lived in Village 32. They were sisters. Nay Theng was three month pregnant. They were caught in a banana plantation.