Cambodia’s garment industry ground to a virtual standstill Monday following a decision by manufacturers to shutter hundreds of factories amid ongoing worker wage strikes and failed talks between the government and union representatives.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), representing employers, issued a statement Sunday blaming unions for provoking problems in the country’s biggest export earning industry, whose workers have been striking since last week over a wage raise they say was far below expectations.
“[S]ince Dec. 25, the illegal and violent actions of [six major] trade unions—including the destruction of factory property, threatening workers who want to work, inciting workers to strike, [and] forcing workers to stop work … as well as their apparent impunity with the Ministry of Labor have left us with no other option but to close,” the statement read.
GMAC said that the actions of the unions over the past week had made an already “difficult business and economic environment” even harder to manage, forcing it to shut down its more than 400 garment factories—the majority of those in the country.
It called on unions representing the garment workers and the Ministry of Labor “to guarantee the safety of our workers who want to work,” as well as “to safeguard all of our property.”
“When these conditions are met, we would be happy to receive the invitation for GMAC members to resume operations and only then will we be able to participate in discussions on matters going forward,” the statement said.
GMAC said that due to worker strikes since Dec. 25, none of its members had been able to meet production schedules and that many of the factories would be subject to fines from buyers, who also had refused to send payments due to nondelivery of goods.
“As a result most factories are unlikely to have the ability to pay wages to their workers on payday,” it said.
GMAC’s decision to shut down its factories came as tens of thousands of workers joined marches and blocked roads in Phnom Penh Monday while the Ministry of Labor continued emergency negotiations with six union representatives that had failed to resolve a wage dispute at the end of last week.
The protesters gathered outside the Labor building, voicing their anger over a government wage increase for garment workers and footwear workers that fell short of unions’ demands.
Officials announced last week the wage would increase from U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 from April, though unions had called for the wages to be doubled immediately to U.S. $160.
Monday’s talks focused largely on getting garment workers back onto factory floors, but the two sides could not find a compromise, according to union leaders. No date was set for further discussions.
When workers learned that the new round of talks had failed to produce a compromise on the wage dispute, they marched en masse towards a building housing Cambodia’s Council of Ministers to call for intervention, but were prevented from advancing by military police road blocks and barbed wire.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions President Rong Chhun, who participated in Monday’s meeting, told RFA’s Khmer Service that with no compromise on the wage dispute, workers would continue to strike.
Collective Union of Movement of Workers President Pav Sina also vowed that the strikes would continue, but denied GMAC claims that the unions had incited the unrest.
“The workers made their own decision to strike—no one has forced them,” he said, urging the Ministry of Labor and GMAC not to place blame for the workers’ actions on the unions.
GMAC, which has traditionally joined such talks as part of tripartite discussions, refused to attend Monday, saying it would boycott meetings to address the workers’ concerns until its demands are met. The move drew criticism from the government, according to local media reports.
The Ministry of Labor on Monday threatened to take legal action against the six garment unions if they continue to organize the workers’ strike movement.
“The unions have incited and threatened the workers to stop working and to destroy … property, affecting factory operations,” labor minister Ith Samheng said following Monday’s meeting, calling for an end to the strikes.
“The demonstrations have also affected both the workers and the national economy.”
Monday’s meeting followed a clash last week between police and striking workers who blocked a key highway in the capital.
Seven workers and seven military police officers were injured in clashes outside a special economic zone which erupted after the workers were prevented from entering. The workers had wanted to enter the zone to encourage fellow workers to join a protest rally.
A Ministry of Labor plea last week for workers from hundreds of factories to return to work ahead of Monday’s talks was rejected by unions.
The worker strikes are supported by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has been holding two weeks of daily protests in a bid to press Prime Minister Hun Sen to hold a re-election following disputed July 28 polls.
In September, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was officially declared the winner of the polls, despite widespread allegations of election irregularities, and the CNRP’s plans for wage increases never came to fruition.
Cambodia’s 300,000 textile workers often work long shifts for little pay in the garment factories, trade unions complain. The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.