Phnom Penh, Cambodia - An eerie silence came over the Canadia Industrial Park area on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Friday afternoon, minutes after soldiers fired automatic rifles into crowds of demonstrators supporting a nationwide garment worker strike.
Gunfire killed at least four people and injured dozens more, in an unprecedented crackdown on demonstrators ten days after a coalition of labour unions called for a national strike against Cambodia's garment factories. The violence followed a Ministry of Labour announcement that the industry's minimum monthly wage would be raised to $95 in 2014, less than the $160 that unions demanded.
The ministry later modified the decision, upping garment workers' 2014 minimum wage to $100 per month.
"It's beyond my belief they would react like that," Kong Athit, vice president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, said of the shootings.
The garment sector accounts for more than 80 percent of Cambodia's exports, and is a lynchpin of the country's economy. The approximately 600,000 garment workers in the country currently earn a minimum monthly wage of $75, plus a $5 health bonus - a raise from the $61 minimum wage that prevailed last year in the industry.
Workers in Cambodia's garment sector frequently toil in poorly ventilated factories and work excessive overtime hours in order to eke out a living. A study released in September by UK-based Labour Behind the Label and Phnom Penh-based Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) reported that individual workers require an income of at least $150 to cover their basic needs.
|Cambodia defends deadly crackdown on protests
The same study cited poverty among garment workers as a primary cause of malnutrition, which is a leading factor in mass fainting, a phenomenon endemic to Cambodia's garment industry - in which dozens to more than 100 workers at a factory faint in close succession.
Poverty among Cambodia's employed runs rampant. As the CIA World Factbook notes, fewer than one percent of Cambodia's population is unemployed, yet 20 percent live below the country's poverty line.
A staggering number of strikes in this Southeast Asian nation indicates a blase attitude in the garment sector towards workers' rights to collectively bargain with management, said Dave Welsh, country coordinator for Washington DC-based labour rights group Solidarity Center. "In a climate where collective bargaining is not only on the employers' side, but is also basically struck down without repercussions... it is difficult for unions to avoid industrial strikes," Welsh said.
When Cambodia's labour law was passed in 1997, it appeared to be a progressive piece of legislation, strictly barring employers from discriminating against any union activity and setting a stringent process for settling industrial disputes. But in practice, corruption and willful ignorance negate many of the law's standards.
The Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) recorded 131 strikes last year, not counting December, when the recent national garment strike was declared. In 2011, the factory association logged 34 strikes for the entire year.
Under the labour law, a legal strike can occur after conciliation has failed, a subsequent Arbitration Council decision is appealed and employee representatives give prior notice to management, the Labour Ministry and corresponding employers' associations (such as GMAC). Employers have the right to challenge the strike's legality in court, a right they seldom waive.
Moeun Tola, who heads CLEC's labour programme, cannot recall a single example of a court ruling in favour of workers when an employer challenged a strike's legality. Employers who want the court to issue an order for employees to return to work are required to bring the issue before a judge, who will most likely rule the strike illegal and call an end to the strike within 48 hours. Striking employees are not entitled to their salary for the duration of the dispute.
About half of strikes in Cambodia achieve some of their objectives, while the other half end without management making any concessions, Tola said. Most strikes last between three and five days.
One recent exception was a nearly four-month strike at SL Garment Processing (Cambodia) Ltd, one of Cambodia's larger garment factories. That strike, which was marked by a police shooting at a demonstration in Phnom Penh on November 12 that killed one bystander, ended last month.
A strike-ending agreement in that case required SL management to reinstate 19 fired unionists and dictated that the Labour Ministry would cooperate with several labour rights groups to coordinate with SL's buyers to pay workers half of the wages lost during the strike, plus bonuses.
Cambodia's garment industry held one previous national strike over the sector's minimum wage in 2010, which then stood at $56 per month. Union leaders called off that strike less than a week after it began, after the government raised the minimum wage to $61.
The Canadia Industrial Park shootings occurred 10 days after leaders of seven union groups called a strike for December 24, sparked by the labour ministry's release of minimum wages for 2014.
We are very worried for everybody who supports the strike. I think the situation is getting worse.
Strikers became closely aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and joined daily demonstrations the party held in an effort to force new elections after last July's polls were marred by allegations of fraud.
Minister of Labour Ith Sam Heng issued an order on December for strikers to return to work by January 2, after thousands of them overwhelmed Russian Federation Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in Phnom Penh, blocking it as they held a demonstration outside the Council of Ministers' office.
The deadly shootings a few days later shocked labour observers and spurred criticism from local and international rights groups. Rights groups Licadho and Adhoc confirmed four deaths, but CNRP lawmaker Ho Van said families had reported six deaths to him.
Since the shooting and a subsequent order from Phnom Penh's municipal government banning public assemblies of more than 10 people, unions organising the strike have dialled it back, declining to encourage demonstrations. "We are very worried for everybody who supports the strike," said Athit, vice president of C.CAWDU, one of the unions that called the strike. "I think the situation is getting worse."
Even though proponents of the strike have all but publically ended the action, low salaries and poverty continue to afflict garment factory workers, said the CLEC's Tola.
Tola doubts the unrest is over for good. "I think it's not ended yet," Tola said.
"I do believe a strike will happen again sometime soon. But just because the situation is tense, workers will [likely] return to work now."