About 3,000 Cambodian garment factory workers sealed off a key highway on Wednesday to back demands for better salaries and working conditions as Prime Minister Hun Sen cautioned about job losses if manufacturers quit the country over wage demands.
The protesting workers from the M&V International Manufacturing factory, a supplier to Swedish clothing brand H&M, blocked a part of National Highway Two in Phnom Penh in the morning, causing traffic congestion.
Workers said they resorted to the action because their two-week strike for better working conditions and salaries had not led to any solution.
They dispersed from the highway after more than two hours of protests and when the factory management agreed to negotiate with the workers.
But the talks failed.
Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union representative San Yout said the workers will continue with their strike.
“We can’t reach any deal. The factory refused to respond to our demands,” he said.
“We have been patient for too long. We have been on strike but the factory has ignored us,” said female worker Prak Samphors.
Another worker, Kim Sereywath, said employees had submitted 11 proposals for improving working conditions at the factory.
She said the factory management had deducted U.S. $10 from salaries of workers who came to work late, "even by one minute."
“The factory shouldn’t deduct our money. If we come late, we are willing to compensate by working late,” she said.
In a statement, the workers said they wanted "decent" salaries, a U.S. $5 living expense bonus, a U.S. $2.50 food bonus and transport allowance.
They also cautioned the management against terminating the services of pregnant workers.
An arbitration council has ordered the workers to resume work but they have refused.
Hun Sen's appeal
The protest came as Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to workers to avoid strikes, warning about job losses if investors move out.
“The garment factory is like your cooking pot,” which is critical, Hun Sen said, praising industrialists for investing in Cambodia and fueling economic growth.
He said that when the government moved to protect investors, it did not mean that the government neglected the interest of workers.
Cambodian workers in the multibillion-dollar garment industry have often held protests against what they see as low wages and unfair working conditions.
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for top Western brands.
The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
In March the Cambodian government announced a higher minimum wage of U.S. $80 per month from U.S. $61 for garment and footwear workers, but unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.
Earlier this week, Hun Sen issued a directive delegating powers to provincial authorities to coordinate to resolve labor conflicts.
But Free Trade Union President Chea Mony said that local authorities were not independent and were biased toward the factory workers.
Last week, hundreds of workers were fired from a factory making sportswear for U.S. giant Nike after a series of pay protests.
Reported by Leng Maly for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.