Only two of eight labor unions representing garment workers in Cambodia went on strike as planned beginning Wednesday to back their demands for a higher minimum wage as the government called the industrial action illegal and warned of possible action.
The six other unions have decided to call off the three-day stay-at-home strike—also aimed at pressuring the authorities to release 21 workers and activists held following a bloody January crackdown—until after the Khmer New Year holiday, which begins on April 14, union leaders said.
Some reports suggested that the workers refused to join the strike following pressure from the government and factory owners or for fear they would lose their jobs.
Unions had earlier warned that the strike action would involve hundreds of thousands of garment workers across the country.
Last month, some 100,000 workers refused to work overtime hours in the first phase of a campaign to push for higher minimum salaries and press for the release of the detainees.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions President Rong Chhun said the strike was only a "test," claiming that workers belonging to the two unions in at least 20 factories in the capital Phnom Penh as well as in Kampong Speu, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham stayed at home or refused to work even after going to their factories.
The government has refused to increase the minimum wage to U.S. $160 as demanded by unions or free the 21 detainees despite their industrial action threats.
The minimum wage was raised to U.S. $100 per month in February following workers’ demands since late last year that it be doubled from U.S. $80 immediately.
'No one will force them'
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), representing employers, said Wednesday that only a few workers in its 400 odd factories were absent from work.
"They have the right to work or stay at home," GMAC President Van Sou Leng said. "No one will force them. But they can't demand salaries if they don't work," he said.
Chheang Thyda, a worker from Kin Tai Factory in Phnom Penh, said about 1,000 workers stayed at home on Wednesday.
She said that although the unions had requested the workers to strike for three days, some have decided to extend the action by two more days.
"When we strike for two to three days, we will lose only about U.S. $10, but if we succeed we can get U.S. $160 a month," Chheang Thyda said. "For the long term, we don't lose any benefits and we will be happy if they [the 21 detainees] get out," she said.
Meanwhile, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said that the strike and other industrial actions taken so far by the garment workers were illegal and that the authorities have the right to act against them.
He labeled the actions as politically motivated.
"Politically motivated demonstrations can't be resolved," he said, speaking at a union policy related workshop,
Ith Sam Heng said that discussions on the salary issue are ongoing and that the government and the International Labor Organization are working to define a new minimum wage.
Speaking at the same conference, Van Sou Leng said the labor dispute cannot be easily resolved because it is linked to politics. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has backed the workers' demand for higher wages and had joined their previous protests.
Van Sou Leng said factory owners have been saddled with problems because there are too many unions in the factories.
Ath Thon, head of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the country’s largest independent union, denied at the workshop that workers' protests were linked to politics.
He said that the procedures to define the minimum wage were not acceptable, calling on the government to convene a meeting soon to discuss the wage increase demand.
Cambodia’s 300,000 textile workers often work long shifts for little pay in the garment factories, trade unions complain, saying the current minimum wage is too low to support a decent livelihood and that many factory workers rely on overtime pay and bonuses to cover their basic expenses.
In a separate development, the Supreme Court has ordered the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to reinvestigate the circumstances in which labor leader Chea Vichea was murdered in 2004.
Phnom Penh Court Deputy Prosecutor Sok Roeun told RFA's Khmer Service that that the court had forwarded the case to the police for investigation.
Chea Vichea, an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and the former president of Cambodia’s Free Trade Union (FTU)—one of the biggest unions in the country—was shot dead on Jan. 22, 2004 by an unknown assailant while he was reading a newspaper at a stand in the capital.
In September, the Supreme Court decided to release two men seen by rights groups as “scapegoats” for the crime after they had spent nearly five years in jail.
“This is the court’s procedure ... so far they accused Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, but both were cleared so the court has ordered prosecutors to reinvestigate the case,” FTU lawyer Kao Thy told RFA.
Chea Mony, who succeeded his brother Chea Vichea as head of the umbrella trade union group, welcomed the court’s move but said he did not believe it could provide the victim’s family justice.
“I think, maybe, we won’t have justice for my brother,” he said.
Reported by Khe Sonorng for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.