The struggle of Cambodian garment workers

Workers are living in fear after a bloody crackdown and imprisonment of labour activists – the repressive response from the Cambodian government to a garment workers’ protest in January that demanded a US$160 monthly wage. Police fired on the strikers, killing at least four, and then arresting 25.*

It is almost impossible for social and political activists to gather in public spaces, including Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, a public venue where civil society should be able to express its problems and seek solutions.

Currently, this park is surrounded with barbed wire, and people have no access to it. Some people call it “Prison Park”. The government also bans gatherings of more than 10 people in public venues, claiming that this is to maintain public order and security.

We then ask, “Where can Cambodian civil society, including garment workers, meet and continue speaking about our issues until our demands are met?” Although there are restrictions on our ability to advocate our human and labour rights, we still find ways because we learned that silence allows the powerful to continue their exploitation and oppression.

We could not do much during International Labour Day, 1 May, this year because of the restrictions on protests. Therefore, workers came together with the assistance of the Workers Information Centre. We had a creative event that continues the living wage campaign and highlights the key players in the garment industry that are responsible for our conditions.

A fashion show was held on 25 May at the office of the United Sisterhood Alliance under the theme “Beautiful clothes, ugly reality”. This was an attractive, critical and political event that workers could conduct in a safer manner despite the current intimidating situation. This is a way to help break fear. All we want is rice, not bullets. Our objectives with the show were:

1. To highlight the income gap between Cambodian textile and garment workers and the CEOs of selected brand companies, including H&M, Adidas/Reebok, Levi, Marks & Spencer, Joe Fresh, Puma, Gap/Old Navy, Champion. They make billions of profits each year. We want to hold them accountable for the current wage campaign deadlock.

2. To express the views of garment workers toward the oppression and violence they have faced and to call for a just resolution between the government, the Garment Manufacturers Association and unions.

3. To call on the government to end all forms of violence and immediately to end the ban on public gatherings.

In addition, we want to restore the hopes of our workers and be united and strengthened, pursuing our struggle for decent working and living conditions, a fair wage for fair work and equitable treatment in our workplaces and society.

Workers from the textile industry continue to contribute so much to Cambodia’s economic growth and to the tremendous profits of the employers and brand corporations. For example, garment and textile exports to the US and EU accounted for 11.3 percent – $2.3 billion – of GDP last year.

The offer of $100 per month minimum wage remains a starvation wage, which we could not accept while we have to spend about $150 per month on living costs such as rented rooms, food, utilities, transport, health care and supporting our families. Speaking for the principle of egalitarian and equitable treatment, we want to highlight that we could not accept the current divided society and capitalist greed.

Why can the children of the prime minister go to higher education and the children of CEOs live privileged lives and have access to adequate health care, while we are living in desperately poor conditions and exploited as a workforce? We do not demand more than is possible but just to live in dignity.

* Editorial note: The 25 workers were tried and convicted on 30 May. However, in a sign that the government is feeling the pressure of support for workers’ rights, their sentences were suspended and they are now free.