Demanding higher salaries and other benefits, garment workers in Cambodia and Burma held protests Wednesday to mark International Labor Day.
A group of Cambodian garment and footwear factory workers were among 10,000 employees, including teachers and civil servants, who marched from Freedom Park in the capital Phnom Penh to the country’s National Assembly, or parliament, calling on the government to raise their minimum wage.
Cambodian garment and footwear workers, who had their minimum monthly wages raised to U.S. $80 from U.S. $61 at the end of March, are pressing for new wages of at least U.S. $150.
Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Unions president Ath Thon, who led the demonstration and handed out a petition calling for the salary increase to protesters, told RFA’s Khmer Service he hoped the country’s lawmakers would address the workers’ concerns.
“We want the lawmakers to speak in front of us so we can see if they will honor our demands,” Ath Thon said, adding that with national elections in July, the demonstration marked an important chance for candidates to showcase their campaign platforms.
“This is an opportunity for the political parties to convince the workers. If the lawmakers make promises, I will take the promises back to them after they win the election,” he said.
“If they don’t honor their promises when they are reelected, we will protest and they will be shamed.”
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. 4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms.
A garment factory worker named Chao Sinoun told RFA she was disappointed with her current wages.
“The factory owner is exploiting my labor. They don’t think about our difficult situations,” she said.
“Right now I am facing high rent, utility and food costs, while paying for health care is also expensive,” she said.
Representatives of both the royalist Funcinpec Party and the The National Rescue Party (NRP), a coalition set to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the July elections, met with protesters in front of the National Assembly to listen to their demands.
NRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said his party would honor the workers’ demands and include them in the party’s political platform.
“The National Rescue Party guarantees that the workers will get U.S. $150,” he told the crowd.
“If we can’t honor this pledge, we will resign.”
Cambodian civil servants are demanding an increase of their basic wages to U.S. $250 from between U.S. $60-110.
In addition to demands for higher wages, workers also called for a number of other concessions, including retirement pensions and reduced gasoline prices.
They also demanded that Cambodia’s justice system prosecute for murder former Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandit, who two months ago was charged for causing “unintentional injury” after being accused of shooting three factory workers during a protest in February last year.
In addition, workers called on authorities to arrest the perpetrators of the 2004 assassination of labor activist Chea Vichea, whose killers have never been found.
In Burma, about 100 workers from the Aung Sein Garment Factory and local union members held a strike in Mandalay city Wednesday after they were told to work by their employer on International Labor Day, which is a public holiday in the country.
“We protested today because the factory is not closed on May Day,” strike leader Than Aung told RFA’s Burmese Service, adding that all other factories in the city were closed.
“We demanded five points, which included the closing of the factory on public holidays.”
According to worker representative Shwe La Win, strikers also called on the factory owner to address “several broken promises” from an agreement signed in June last year to make reasonable policy regarding employee leave, and to refrain from forcing workers to sign documents against their will.
He said workers wanted the factory owner to destroy a “secret document” of workplace rules that employees had never been privy to, without providing further details.
“Today is May Day, but the factory was not closed and we were even asked to work overtime without discussing it with anyone in advance. The owner of the factory broke the agreement he signed with workers last year. That is why we protested,” Shwe La Win said.
He said factory management had asked employees to work on several public holidays, but when told to report to duty on International Labor Day, they decided to hold a public protest.
“We had only two days off per month … before we signed [last year’s] agreement and we had to work 10 and half hours a day. The pay was very low,” he said.
“That’s why we protested in 2012 and signed the agreement with the owner. But the owner has broken this bond.”
Around noon during the strike, Shwe La Win said, an administrator from Pyaygyitagon township and officials from the Mandalay division labor department came to negotiate between the protesters and their employer.
After five hours of discussions, the factory owner accepted the list of demands and signed a new agreement with the workers.
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service, and San Oo and Ei Ei Khaine for the Burmese Service. Translated from Khmer by Samean Yun and from Burmese by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.