Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, January 03, 2014


By Nathan A Thompson

Four people were killed and 21 more were injured in Cambodia this morning, when police opened fire with AK-47s into a group of protesters. The deaths come after months of tension and escalating violence between the authorities and garment workers who are demanding higher wages.

That tension began to arrive at a head on Thursday evening, when a police battalion in Phnom Penh were beaten back from an apartment block that had been seized by protesters during a day of demonstrations. By this morning, the military cops were engaged in a standoff on Veng Sreng Boulevard – one of the main roads out of the Cambodian capital – and the makeup of their opponents was a curious one. The factory workers, 90 percent of whom are women, had at some point been replaced by groups of metal pole and machete wielding young men, gathered together behind rows of Molotov cocktails.

As you might imagine, the atmosphere was tense. The military police stood in their black ranks, their weapons glinting in the sun, until they chose to respond to a barrage of rocks and bricks with gunfire. A nearby clinic that had refused to help the injured was ransacked. One of the injured was a pregnant woman who had been trying to escape the chaos.

The tragic scenes come after several months of striking by workers at the SL Factory, which supplies Western chains with clothes. The SL workers' own strike ended on the 22nd of December, just in time for them to join a nationwide strike on Christmas Day. The deaths this morning weren't the first. A protest in November saw an innocent bystander – a food vendor named Eng Sokhom – killed by a stray police bullet to the chest, with a further nine getting wounded and 37 arrested. The crackdown actually started last August, when 19 union members were fired and SL Factory shareholder, Meas Sotha, brought his private guards into the factory for "security".

Though the 19 workers were later reinstated, clearly that didn't do much in terms of quelling the rage felt by SL's employees.

The aggro isn't confined to the SL Factory. The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) estimates that over a quarter of working days in the last two years have been lost due to strikes. I lost a working day last May when I found my road home blocked by three enormous concrete pipes that had been dragged into place by cheering, pyjama-wearing factory workers (pyjamas are acceptable daywear in Cambodia).

While men on scooters tried to circumnavigate the blockade by slipping and sliding through a drainage ditch, I stopped and talked with those involved. I found a story that would repeat itself at the gates of factories throughout Cambodia – the workers said they needed higher wages but the bosses said they could not afford to pay them. Both agreed that the onus was on Western chains to pay more for the garments they were buying.

Cambodia’s clothing industry makes up 80 percent of the country's exports and employs 400,000 people, with an estimated 300,000 more working in supporting roles. Almost all are young, female and poor. As a result, rural Cambodian villages are devoid of school-leavers as they get absorbed into the industry. It's a punitive cycle. I lived in a Cambodian village and noticed the older girls from my English class kept disappearing. “Where’s Srey Neung?” I would ask. “She’s gone to work in a factory," would come the typical reply.

Srey Neung, like many her age, now works 60 hours per week in order to send £18 home to her family. She’s lucky to be starting work in 2013. Ten years ago, the situation for workers was atrocious. Rina Roat started her working life in the factories back in 2003. She told me that her basic salary was £27 per month. She had to work up to 20 hours a day including overtime to support herself. She suffered from depression and exhaustion but was too afraid to complain in case she lost her job. She's now an entrepreneur but her hands remain thick with scar tissue from years spent tending to the machines.

Since Rina’s day, there have been small improvements. The minimum wage per month has increased from £27 to £48 between 1997 and 2013. But is this enough to cover the cost of living? Joseph Lee, Director of SL Factory, told me that the minimum one of his workers needed to survive is £35 per month – that’s if they shared a tiny room with four others, ate only super-cheap Ramen noodles and commuted in overstuffed cattle trucks.

That’s nowhere near enough, said Ath Thorn, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU). He pointed out that Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour found that garment workers needed at least £95 per month to cover the cost of living. This kind of bickering between factories and unions is typical and often results in protests and violence.

Joseph Lee says this year has been the worst he can remember. He told me that his driver was left half blind after a clash between strikers and security staff at the factory on the 1st of November. The driver was trying to escape the ruckus when a ball bearing was fired from a slingshot. It exploded his eyeball on impact. Lee also alleges that a worker who didn’t want to join the protest was hit by a brick on his way to work. “He used to be the most handsome man in the factory but not any more,” Lee explained. “I want to increase wages but how can I when the buyers keep pushing me to reduce my price?”

One buyer has taken some responsibility. H&M have chosen two factories in Bangladesh and one in Cambodia to pilot a scheme where they interview the management and staff to discover what is a living wage and supply the extra funds from their own profits. They have pledged to pay a living wage, but not until 2018. Koh Chong Ho, the general manager of SL Factory, told me that if the buyers increased their price he'd be able to pay his workers more and that this would go a long way to creating peace and stability in the industry.

Clearly Western brands need to take more responsibility but that won’t solve the problem completely; not while corruption remains uncurtailed. Cambodia is ranked as the 17th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. Kol Preap, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia told me that while there are no exact figures, he knows that garment factories pay massive bribes to officials. Koh declined to comment on this.

Opposition party the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) claim to have been cheated out of winning last summer’s elections and have seen their ranks swell with garment factory workers after promising them their desired wage increase to £160 per month. The pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen is mounting. Everyone's waiting to see what will happen on Sunday, when the CNRP has called for another demonstration.

Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanWrites and check out his website.

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