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Labour strikes plunge in 2014

Garment factory workers protest on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard in September
Garment factory workers protest on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard in September, calling for the industry’s minimum wage to be increased to $177. Hong Menea

Labour strikes plunge in 2014

Strikes in 2014 plummeted by nearly half compared with the year before, leading some to surmise that dialogue between factories and unions had improved, while at least one advocacy group suggested it was intimidation that kept workers from picket lines.

In a speech yesterday, Prak Chanthoeun, chief of the Ministry of Labour’s Committee for the Settlement of Strikes and Demonstrations, said 276 strikes occurred this year, a steep decline from the Ministry of Interior’s tally of 418 in 2013.

“The factory strikes in 2014 were still a considerable problem,” Chanthoeun said at a training course for industrial problem solving. “The main factors that led to protests were factory bankruptcy, suspensions of union leaders and wage negotiations – including for benefits such as food and transportation bonuses.”

Cambodia’s largest export industry began 2014 in disarray amid a 10-day nationwide strike that started late the previous year. Hundreds of thousands of strikers walked off the job and into the streets, protesting the Ministry of Labour’s decision to raise the minimum monthly wage from $75 to $95, $65 less than an independent union campaign demanded.

Unions abruptly put the strike on hold after police and military authorities first violently broke up peaceful protests near the Yakjin Factory on January 2, then responded to a riotous protest outside the Canadia Industrial Park on Veng Sreng Boulevard a day later by firing automatic weapons into crowds of demonstrators. At least five were killed, with dozens more injured.

January’s violent suppression of protests, followed by a ban on public gatherings and a military police presence around factory areas, intimidated garment workers, lessening the will to strike, said Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center’s labour program.

“We still remember when the [unions] organised a boycott to release the 23 [arrested January 2 and 3], the soldiers were deployed at the factories,” Tola said yesterday. “The deployment of the soldiers definitely intimidated workers not to go on strike.”

But Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) – one of the unions that supported the nationwide strike – yesterday said he believed the government and factory management have been more receptive to negotiating with unions this year than in the past.

Joint pressure from international brands, international labour unions and rights groups forced improved dialogue between the stakeholders, Thorn said.

“Last year, the government and factory [managers] didn’t want to talk; this year, government and factories wanted to talk,” Thorn said. “[There was] a lot of pressure from international buyers and the international community on the government and companies.”

In November, the government hiked floor salaries for the coming year in the garment sector to a base wage of $128.

A spokesman from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia did not respond to calls or a text message yesterday.

Tola agreed that communication between unions, the government and factories advanced since 2013, but pointed out that eight independent union presidents remain under court supervision following the nationwide strike, forcing them to tread more lightly.

“The Ministry of Labour . . . [has expanded] discussion with unions and groups, but it’s not a faithful discussion, because the key union leaders are under court supervision,” Tola said. “It’s like they have a gun to their heads.”

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