Dissatisfied by a minimum wage increase, thousands of striking garment factory workers on Thursday joined Cambodia’s opposition supporters in mass demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen and a re-election.
The footwear and textile factory workers gathered for the first time with opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) faithful in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where supporters have held 12 days of “nonstop” mass protests following disputed July elections they say were tainted by fraud.
The government announced earlier this week that the monthly minimum wage for garment workers would be increased from U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 starting from April next year, though unions have been demanding U.S. $160 per month beginning in 2014.
The announcement triggered waves of protests and calls for strikes supported by the CNRP, which during its campaign ahead of the July 28 election had vowed to raise wages for workers in Cambodia’s biggest export earning industry.
On Thursday, the workers gathered with CNRP supporters in the park, airing their grievances before joining a five-hour, 10-kilometer (six-mile) march through the capital.
Authorities monitored the gathering, but allowed it to proceed unhindered.
Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the workers would not accept the newly announced wage increase, adding that the workers’ movement “cannot be stopped” and comparing it to a “dam that has been broken.”
He demanded that the government accept the workers’ demand of U.S. $160 per month “if they want to stop the strikes.”
The Associated Press quoted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy as pledging to assist the workers during Thursday’s gathering.
“I'm aware of the difficulties facing the workers and have helped them for 20 years. Now I am ready to help them again,” he said.
“That is the difference with Hun Sen, who is sticking with factories owners.”
The protest came as roughly 300,000 workers from some 100 of Cambodia’s more than 500 garment and footwear factories went on strike Thursday to protest the wage announcement, reports said.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) has recommended that its members stop operations for a week, citing fears that demonstrators might damage factories if workers do not join the strikes.
Invitation to talks
Also on Thursday, the Ministry of Labor’s Committee to Resolve Strikes invited six prominent union leaders, including Ath Thon, Free Trade Union president Chea Moni and Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun to talks, calling on them to end the worker unrest.
Committee secretary general Prak Chanthoeun warned that the government would take legal action against any union that provokes workers to strike.
“We intend to educate [the workers], but if [the unions] continue to provoke the workers to act out in a way that threatens security, they will face legal action,” he said.
Prak Chanthoeun said that the workers are being “exploited by the CNRP” and warned that the strikes would scare off investors, who would turn to other countries to do business.
“The strikes have impacted the workers,” he said. “If the workers continue to strike, the investors will run away and they will only be hurting themselves.”
GMAC senior official Cheath Khemara told RFA’s Khmer Service that if Cambodia’s garment factories were to immediately increase the minimum wage of the workers to U.S. $160 it would negatively impact the sustainability of investment in the industry.
"We can't simply increase wages by 100 percent or it will affect investment,” Cheath Khemara said.
“If we do that, both [the workers and the factories] will die,” he said, adding that investors would look to the Lao and Vietnamese markets for lower worker costs.
Meanwhile on Thursday, Cambodia’s Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) urged the government to hold a re-election to avoid violence that could come from a continued power struggle.
“If you politicians are mature, we must seek a compromise to avoid any violence,” Comfrel board of director committee chairman Thun Saray said during a conference in Phnom Penh held to unveil a report on irregularities in the July election.
“If there is violence, there will be bloodshed and Cambodians will lose their lives,” Thun Saray, who is also director of rights group Adhoc, told reporters.
On Sunday, in the largest demonstration since the disputed July elections, some 500,000 CNRP supporters marched through the streets of Phnom Penh calling for Hun Sen to step down and to announce new polls.
The CNRP, which has boycotted parliament saying it was robbed of victory due to poll fraud, launched daily mass protests on Dec. 15 to force a re-election after its calls for an independent election probe into irregularities were dismissed by the government.
It has vowed to keep up daily protests for three months or until there is a fresh vote.
But Hun Sen last week rejected the call for his resignation and fresh elections, saying there is no provision in the country's constitution that allows for a re-election.
Comfrel director Koul Panha said Thursday that the two parties have exhausted all options through political talks, including the possibility of a power sharing agreement and for an investigation into election irregularities.
“The best choice now is to have an election as soon as possible. That way the victor will win with dignity and the loser will be satisfied.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.