Striking out

January 3, 2014

Interesting times in Cambodia this New Year. And by interesting, I mean, not good.

Since Christmas Eve, a majority of the country’s garment workers have been on strike. Yesterday, an elite paratrooper regiment attacked strikers with metal pipes, knives, AK-47s, slingshots and batons outside a Korean-owned garment factory on the outskirts of the capital.

And today, the police shot and killed at least three strikers at another factory. There is a jittery mood in Phnom Penh, not helped by the country’s supine media not reporting much about the current events.

Garments are a huge source of income to Cambodia; some 600,000 people are thought to work for some 800 factories; most of them are young women from the countryside. The trade is worth some $5 billion to the country, or about 12 percent of GDP.

The issue, of course, is money. The striking workers currently get the minimum wage, of $80 dollars a month, and the opposition CNRP has vowed, if they win a rerun of last July’s disputed election, to raise this to $160. Of course, Hun Sen says there will be no new elections, but he is under a tremendous amount of pressure right now.

Whether increasing their pay is actually realistic, is unclear. With Bangladesh’s new minimum wage set at just $68, and Burma looming on the horizon, many doubt there’s room for such a drastic hike in wages. “I don’t think it’s deliverable, I think it’s a popular move that the opposition’s riding on,” says political analyst Ou Virak.

Garment factory owners are unlikely to want to double their wage bills, and would probably up sticks and decamp. That could lead to massive social and economic problems; most workers wouldn’t go back to the countryside. “If they stay in the city, there is the risk they may end up working in the indirect sex industry at restaurants or karaoke bars,” says Ou Virak.

Analysts say the situation is “precarious” and the government’s strategy was not to cave in, but to cling on and hope the protesting workers run out of money.

Of course, the CNRP is riding the wave of discontent, and has called off talks with the ruling CPP in protest at the violence. There are really no winners here, but, as ever, it is the very poorest who are getting shafted the hardest.



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