By Diana Karakos, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
Something amazing has happened this week. One of the most exciting examples of workers standing together for the betterment of all 300,000 garment factory workers in Cambodia is incredible and one for the history books. On Monday, September 13, 60,000 of Cambodia’s garment industry workers went on strike demanding a raise and by the third day about 190,000 workers were on strike. They are led by Ath Thorn, the President of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) one of the key union partners of ILRF in Cambodia. The minimum wage was raised from $50 per month to $61 per month. However, the workers are demanding that it be raised to $93 per month as $61 per month is not enough for a living wage. You can draw parallels to this situation as what we have writing about in Bangladesh where the government raised the minimum wage but yet it wasn’t anywhere near a wage that would meet basic needs.
25 year old Chheng Chanvy explains, “We don’t get a salary. We are paid by the quality of the work, so we earn around $50 to $90 a month. This is not enough. My family spends almost all of that on water and electricity bills.” Chanvy is employed by the Chinese company, San Lei Fung Garment & Woolen knitting Factory Ltd. This factory supplies top buyers such as Jones New York, Nine West, Evan Picone, and Ralph Lauren.
Workers like Chanvy want the garment factories to sit down and negotiate with C.CAWDU for a living wage. The strike continued to grow daily, increasing from 60,000 workers on Monday, to 150,000 workers on Tuesday, up to 190,000 workers on Wednesday. With a total of 300,000 garment industry workers, the 190,000 workers represent an overwhelming majority of the garment work force. However, threats by the Cambodian government have been made against trade unionists who are trying to exercise their lawful right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Also, requests for public meetings and demonstrations have been repeatedly refused by the authorities.
On September 6, 2010, representatives from the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), met with the Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC), and the Cambodian National Confederation (CNC) to discuss wages and benefits. However, no agreement was reached. The CLC and the CNC have asked GMAC to continue the negotiations. Most recently, the CLC and the CNC have declared at temporary cessation of the strike upon receiving an invitation from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor, Vocational Training and Youth Rehabilitation to a negotiation meeting on September 27th. We are deeply concerned for the safety of our friends and leaders of the labor rights movement in Cambodia given some reports of police repression towards the strikers.
In addition to minimum wage concerns, the workers are also alarmed by the increase in short-term contracts. According to testimony provided by Mr. Tola Moeun, the Head of the Labor Program Unit at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), at a September 10, 2009 Human Rights Commission hearing, there has been a serious deterioration of labor conditions in Cambodia. He explained that, “Many labor contracts that were once of unspecified duration have increasingly been replaced by short-term contracts that last only one, two, three or six months. While this arrangement may increase companies’ profits, it leads to job insecurity and instability and effectively reduces workers’ labor conditions.” He continued, “Employers are systematically using short-term contracts in order to avoid key obligations and fundamental entitlements under the Labor Code. By using short-term contracts, factories are not required to provide maternity or annual leave. Contracts may be renewed, but only at the employer’s behest. Short-term contracts discourage employees from joining trade unions, out of fear that an employer will not renew the short-term contract, and those who are active in unions may be fired or “laid off” at the whim of their employer. As such, short-term contracts are used as a union-busting device.” He also clarified that if the Cambodian government amends the current Labor Law to allow companies to employ workers indefinitely on successive short-term contracts, this would institutionalize this practice.
This recent turn of events appears to be a scary mirror of the recent strike and arrest of union leaders in Bangladesh. Garment workers in Bangladesh, led by Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, held a series of public demonstrations to demand higher wages as the current minimum wage was not sufficient to cover the living wage. However, both leaders were arrested for leading the strike by the Bangladesh authorities. Kalpona Akter is the founder of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) and has been integral to the education, empowerment and struggle of Bangladesh garment workers.
Cambodia has a history of labor violations as highlighted by the King’s Land Garment Cambodia Company. This company provides apparel to Wal-Mart and its supplier Saramax, Allura Importers Inc., and Carter’s Watch the Wear. The King’s Land factory produces casual women’s and men’s apparel, children’s clothing, and women’s underwear. In the past King’s Land management has verbally abused workers, violated minimum wage requirements, discriminated against union members, provided unsanitary bathroom facilities, and has refused to grant workers sick leave.
On February 6, 2008 the Garment Workers Democratic Union of King’s Land Garment Co., Ltd. (C.CAWDU) held a strike in front of the factory. Later that day they waited for their wages to be paid in front of the building. They were forced to wait an hour and a half past their usual payment time when the police came and argued with the workers about public security issues. The situation escalated when police began to beat workers, also allowing company cars to crush the waiting workers. Because of this 15 workers were hurt, 5 sustaining serious injuries. C.CAWDU condemns this and expects the violators to be held accountable.
With such blatant examples of human rights and workers rights violations, it is not surprising that the Cambodian garment workers have had enough. The have come together in awe-inspiring numbers to fight for the rights accorded them. The buyers cannot ignore such a powerful response to these abuses.
It is imperative that buyers such as GAP, Nike, Wal-Mart, and Adidas put pressure on the employers association to grant the workers the rights guaranteed them through international law and through agreements signed by these companies to enforce these standards. It is their social responsibility to ensure that the workers are treated justly.
The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an international labor-rights network, has launched a movement to raise awareness regarding the plight of the Cambodian workers. The CCC has contacted major international buyers to step up their ethical programs to ensure that workers receive a living wage. “Garment workers earning the minimum wage live in dire poverty, often barely able to buy healthy and nutritious meals,” says Mr. Jeroen Merk (CCC). “The need for action is highlighted by the fact that in August hundreds of garment workers fainted in Cambodia as a result of malnutrition.”
The CCC has also expressed their concern about the safety of workers in exercising trade union activities. In recent months, requests for public meetings and demonstrations have been refused by Cambodian authorities. According to Ms. Ineke Zeldenrust (CCC), “the Police forcibly stopped workers from attending rallies, while government officials and employers have threatened union leaders with criminal charges and imprisonment. The Cambodian government and employers association should immediately cease any interference with, threats against and intimidation of trade unionists.”
The CCC is calling upon the buyers to:
- Contact GMAC and strongly encourage them to immediately commence good faith negotiations with C.CAWDU and NIFTUC towards a mutually beneficial resolution to a potentially damaging conflict, and to express your support for a wage that meets living wage standards.
- Closely monitor the strike activities to ensure that all workers can exercise their rights freely and safely according to national laws and international standards.
- Make a public statement that the proposed living wage of 93 US$ would not be a reason for relocating your production out of Cambodia.
For more information regarding ILRF’s work to improve sweatshop labor around the world such as the injustices occurring in Cambodia, click here.