Cambodia’s garment workers fight poor working conditions

Alice Cuddy reports on the government crackdown against protesters and trade unions.


Factory workers protesting in 2012 for a fairer salary. Nicholas Wang under a Creative Commons Licence

Garment strikes hit Cambodia in record numbers in 2013, with disgruntled workers taking their calls for an increase in wages to the streets. This year, the protests have been even bigger and demands met with deadly force.

Seventeen-year-old Yon Chea had been working at a garment factory on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, for a little more than a year when government forces found him at the scene of a protest.

‘I heard fighting outside so I went down with my camera phone to see what was going on and take pictures,’ he said. ‘[But] when I was there military police surrounded me. They did not speak, they just charged at me.’

Strikes, walkouts and other forms of industrial civil disobedience culminated in January with a violent attack on strikers who had resorted to blocking roads and throwing rocks at police to voice their demands for a $160 monthly minimum wage.

Four people were killed in the brutal crackdown on 3 January. Chea was one of 23 protesters, activists and bystanders arrested at the scene and detained.

It took rights groups and the media days to locate the detainees. One of the disappeared, 16-year-old Khem Sophath, who is reported to have been shot in the chest, is yet to be found.

'Conditions have been profitable for manufacturers and buyers but not for workers. There is a huge amount of money to be made but none of it is making its way into the workers’ pockets’

Chea said he spent two days at police headquarters, where he claims he was forced to strip down to his underwear and sleep on a sheet of paper on the floor. He was then transferred in secret to a remote prison near the Vietnamese border along with the 22 others. Twenty-one remain in the prison, which rights groups have labelled ‘among the harshest’ in Cambodia.

While Chea has been released on bail, the outside world affords him little freedom. ‘I’m still very frightened. I don’t leave the house any more,’ he said from the floor of the windowless four-by-four-metre home that he shares with his parents and two of his siblings.

Chea lost his job following his arrest, but said the injuries he sustained at the hands of security forces would make it impossible for him to work anyway. Unable to hear out of one ear or use one of his hands, Chea believes he will be handicapped for the rest of his life.

While he still supports calls to raise the minimum wage – which now stands at $100 per month – Chea said he would be reluctant to protest again.

The other detainee released on bail, 27-year-old Bou Sarith, agreed. ‘I’m too afraid to ever protest,’ he said. ‘Prison…it’s not like home.’

Blanket asssault

Dave Welsh, country director for labour rights group Solidarity Center, said January’s crackdown is just one example of the government’s ‘blanket assault’ on trade unions and workers. ‘It’s hard to imagine anything further from freedom of association than what we have here at the moment,’ he said.

In Cambodia, the culture of impunity is well documented. A former town governor who more than 20 witnesses say opened fire on strikers in 2012, injuring three female garment workers, remains at large. Despite this, Van Sou Ieng, president of the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, said earlier this month that ‘freedom of association is to the extreme in Cambodia.’

Sou Ieng has called for an end to the compulsory eight-hour working day limit and for unions to be dismantled.

While global brands have spoken out against the treatment of striking workers and supported calls to raise wages in Cambodia, many say that they too are part of the problem. Campaigners say that few of the factories that are sub-contracted to produce garments for high-street brands such as Gap and Banana Republic meet international standards of best practice. Basic health and safety is regularly ignored, with recent audits of a factory producing clothes for H&M showing that chemical waste was not being properly disposed of, while workers were not provided with equipment or adequate washing facilities to protect them from the chemicals.

Mass faintings at factories across Cambodia are a regular occurrence and military police have supported enforced overtime by helping owners to trap employees inside workplaces.

But despite growing concern over the treatment of workers, exports in Cambodia’s largest foreign currency earner – the majority of which go to the US and European Union – continue to grow, bringing in $5.53 billion last year alone, according to government figures.

‘It just shows how profitable conditions have been for manufacturers and buyers but not for workers,’ said Joel Preston, a consultant with the Community Legal Education Centre. ‘There is a huge amount of money to be made but none of it is making its way into the workers’ pockets.’

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, agreed: ‘Cambodia has more, so the workers should have more.’

But for workers like Chea and Sarith, the idea of a basic living wage remains a distant dream.