Thousands take to the streets in May Day protests

Workers protest in front of the Senate yesterday for May Day
Workers protest in front of the Senate yesterday for May Day. Sreng Meng Srun

Thousands take to the streets in May Day protests

Low pay, poor working conditions and a lack of justice top of workers’ concerns during rallies

In a show of strength on May Day, thousands of workers yesterday descended on Phnom Penh to voice their frustrations with low pay, poor working conditions and discrimination against unions.

A coalition of several independent unions organised three separate rallies across the capital, including one at Freedom Park, one at the Ministry of Labour and a third at the National Assembly.

Some 500 workers delivered a petition to the National Assembly, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $177 a month, the scrapping of short-term contracts, the dropping of charges against union leaders and activists and justice for families of workers fatally shot by security guards during last year’s Veng Sreng strike.

The groups also called for the establishment of a labour court, the easing of restrictions for registering unions, a maternity leave scheme and more consultation on the proposed trade union law, which unions say will undermine workers’ rights.

“We want better wages,” said 25-year-old garment factory worker Khun Meta, among demonstrators in Freedom Park.

“Rent and food and healthcare get more expensive all the time.”

Across town at the Ministry of Labour, Minister Ith Sam Heng lauded the government’s progress in the sector, citing the recent increase in the garment industry’s minimum wage to $128 a month.

However, David Welsh, country manager of labour rights group the Solidarity Centre, said although yesterday’s demonstrations were peaceful, a deep frustration remained among workers. 

“You still have the situation wherever an independent trade union in the country has an ongoing lawsuit against them that’s promoted by the government and the industry,” Welsh said.

“There’s still not a living wage in the garment sector, there’s an effective freeze or slowdown of the restriction of independent trade unions in most sectors, and the government seems to be going ahead in ushering in a new trade union law which even by the [International Labour Organisation’s] admission is in violation of the four ILO conventions.”

Meanwhile, the ruling party yesterday hit out at a member of the new National Election Committee for participating in the Labour Day demonstrations, accusing former head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers' Association Rong Chhun of compromising the electoral body’s neutrality.

Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sous Yara said Chhun had violated his obligation to remain neutral by appearing at the Labour Ministry rally. “This shows real conflicts of interest and affects the value of the NEC that both parties have vowed to make an independent and neutral institution,” said CPP spoksesman Sous Yara.

However, Chhun – who resigned from head of the union after being elected to the NEC – hit back saying he was only observing the event and hadn’t delivered a speech.

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