Garment Industry / Human Rights / Labor Rights / News / Union

Union Leader Warns of a Return to Strike by Cambodian Workers

by RFA Khmer

Activists march through Phnom Penh to deliver petitions to foreign embassies calling for the release of 23 detainees, Jan. 23, 2014.

Cambodia’s garment factory workers will return to holding strikes next week if the government fails to make a decision on their demands for a doubling of minimum wages and refuses to release 23 people arrested in a recent bloody labor crackdown, a union leader warned Tuesday.

Ath Thon, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, effectively set a Feb. 5 deadline to the government for a decision on the union’s call for minimum wages to be raised to U.S. $160 a month.

“We have already discussed [among unions] that if we don’t get an answer about the minimum wage and about the 23 rights activists and workers [who had been arrested], we will inform [the government] about our strike which will start from Feb 5.”

The 23 were arrested after security forces shot dead four people and wounded several others on Jan. 3 amid a crackdown on a strike by garment workers demanding higher minimum wages. A fifth person subsequently died in hospital.

The government clampdown, followed by a ban on any demonstrations in the capital Phnom Penh, had forced an end to the strikes and the return to factories by thousands of protesting workers.

Cambodia’s garment industry, a key export earner, had ground to a virtual standstill following the strikes which led manufacturers to shutter the hundreds of factories in the country as they were unable able to meet production schedules.

Ahead of the new year, officials had announced that the minimum wage would be increase from U.S. $80 to U.S. $95 from April, turning down a request by unions that it be doubled immediately. Officials later raised the rate to U.S. $100 per month beginning in February.

Compensation claims

Union leaders also said Tuesday that they are preparing documents to file compensation claims with the relevant authorities over the deaths, injuries, sackings, and detention of workers following the strikes.

They will also demand that the factories reinstate 100 union representatives who were terminated due to their participation in recent protests.

Despite the ban on demonstrations, workers have been holding sporadic protests together with political activists, risking violent crackdowns by the authorities.

Three days ago, at least 10 people were injured in the Cambodian capital when security forces clashed with protesting activists, trade union leaders, and workers demanding higher wages and the release of the 23 people.

Protesters threw rocks, shoes, water bottles, and sticks at the police and Phnom Penh Municipal Council security forces who retaliated by hitting them with batons and tasers, eyewitnesses said.

ILO concern

In a fresh expression of concern, the International Labour Organization said in a statement Tuesday that it is “deeply disturbed” by the continuing violence, citing particularly the crackdown on Sunday.

“The ILO urges all parties to refrain from further violence, and to take all steps necessary for the release of the trade union leaders and workers detained for having participated in the strike over the minimum wage,” the U.N. agency said.

The ILO also called on the Cambodian government to launch an independent inquiry “without delay” to determine the circumstances of police action and the deaths, assaults, and arrests of workers during strike action earlier this month.

“The inquiry should determine responsibilities and punish those responsible where appropriate, as well as outline the steps to prevent the repetition of such acts,” it said, adding that the ILO was ready to provide any assistance to work towards a resolution of the conflict through dialogue.

UN review

Meanwhile, the Cambodian government defended its human rights record in a document presented at a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In a 24-page document, it reviewed the steps it said it had taken over the years to upgrade human rights but offered no explanation on the recent crackdown on peaceful protests.

Representatives from the United States and Britain at the meeting asked the Cambodian authorities to lift the ban on protests.

Britain said the use of live ammunition by Cambodian security forces during the Jan. 3 crackdown on workers’ strikes “cannot be justified,” calling for a “credible inquiry” on the incident and the release of the 23 people who had been detained.

The United States said the protest ban should be lifted “immediately.”

The Swedish representative warned of a draft Cambodian cyber law that could thwart freedom of expression and called on the government to discuss with civil society groups before its implementation.

It also cited allegations of fraud in the July 2013 elections in which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was declared the winner, calling for electoral and other reforms to protect human rights.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch had said that through the end of 2013, it found that “the human rights situation in the country had worsened significantly since its last [UPR] in 2009.”

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