Disenchantment over salaries could provoke further protests and violence in Cambodia’s key garment sector, which supplies many Western brands.
Phnom Penh (dpa) – Further bloody crackdowns against Cambodia’s garment workers over wages could happen, experts say, as global brands continue to source from the South-East Asian nation’s multibillion dollar sector.
If the workers stage any more protests, “we will face problems like beatings, violence and jail,” said Ath Thorn, president of Cambodia’s largest independent union.
Ongoing negotiations and sporadic protests over pay and working conditions have seen clashes with security forces, including the killing of five workers in January 2014.
Kem Ley, an analyst and consultant for both labour advocacy groups and apparel brands, said even peaceful protests will likely be violently suppressed in the future.
“The government right now, they are worried about an uprising, a revolution, and they use their power everywhere,” he said, adding that the government treats strikes as potential insurrections.
Cambodia is home to approximately 700,000 garment workers in factories producing clothing for brands including Adidas, Puma, Armani, H&M, Gap and others.
Worth 5 billion US dollars a year, the industry produces 80 per cent of Cambodia’s exports by value.
But the sector has come under fire in recent years by labour activists for failing to raise wages to accommodate Cambodia’s fast-growing economy.
“Ket Meng, a 34-year-old whose most recent employer was a Taiwanese-owned factory that counted luxury brand Armani as a client according to export records obtained by the Phnom Penh Post, said the current minimum wage of 128 dollars a month is actually worth less than the 45 dollars she made 10 years ago after adjusting for inflation.
“Even though I only got 45 dollars, I could send money to my family and have a happy life, but now I’m not happy because the goods are expensive in the market,” she said.
The Taiwanese-owned factory that employs her counts luxury brand Armani among its clients, according to export records obtained by the Phnom Penh Post.
The last nationwide garment strike calling for a higher minimum wage brought production to a standstill at the end of 2013 and ended with at least five protesters shot dead by military police and more than 20 injured on January 3, 2014.
A bystander was also killed by police gunfire in November 2013 at a separate garment strike in Phnom Penh.
Mindful of the risk of violence, Thorn said he refrained from calling for protests last month, when the sector’s minimum wage was raised from 128 to 140 dollars, 20 dollars short of union demands.
“We’re sure that the government will not allow the protests because they are afraid and concerned we will be making trouble,” he said.
The union’s current strategy, he added, is to negotiate with the local manufacturers.
Willingness among consumers in the West to pay more for clothes, he said, is also “very important” in raising salaries.
If progress at the negotiating tables is not forthcoming, Ley said he foresees workers taking to the streets without union backing. Such unsupervised protests, he added, are particularly conducive to violence.
“The union leaders have the professional role to tell the workers to keep nonviolent, but when the workers organize demonstrations themselves, I think this is dangerous for them and the country as a whole,” he said, citing 2014’s deadly clash, which lacked union direction.
Meng, who took part in the protests that culminated in 2014’s fatalities, said she wouldn’t hesitate to protest again despite the risks.
“I am never scared to strike even though I know it would lead to violence,” she said, adding that rising living costs will eventually force workers to strike.
“We still do it because we need to survive,” she said.
The country’s manufacturers, however, resist higher wages. Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association in Cambodia, said workers get paid enough already.
“If they couldn’t afford to eat properly, then I don’t think they’d all be owning smartphones and motorbikes,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan defended forceful repressions of labour protests when they violate laws.
If they disrespect authority, “we can respond right away,” he said, without specifying what laws would be broken.
The government “doesn’t think about” the threat of future labour-related violence, he said.
The last round of worker killings, which coincided with mass opposition party protests in the wake of 2013’s disputed elections, were the product of a 30-year-old regime trying to retain power at high costs, analyst Chea Vannath said.
The crackdown was out of fear that the union protest might spark a wider insurrection, she said. “Protests can turn very ugly for the ruling party.”
Ley added that the precedent of using force could embolden the government to commit further state violence against future protests, and that authorities had learned how to manage perception abroad.
“They learned a lot about the pressure from the international community, from the buyers, from the development partners,” he said.
“They have experience in doing bad things.”