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Dying for fashion

Deadly clashes between poor garment workers and police are threatening to cripple Cambodia's largest export industry.

Last updated: 21 Mar 2014 07:21
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Cambodia's largest export industry is facing its biggest crisis, with garment workers and security forces engaged in a series of ongoing clashes. One recent protest left five people dead and scores injured.

The violence comes after weeks of political and labour unrest crippled Cambodia's garment industry.

While the international spotlight has focused on the garment factories of Bangladesh, Cambodia's garment workers have been staging their own revolution. Hundreds of industrial strikes have left the industry in turmoil and presented Prime Minister Hun Sen with the toughest political challenge in his nearly three-decade rule.

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Last year 381 industrial strikes were recorded, up from 102 the previous year. Backed by a powerful workers' union, the nationwide strikes are fuelled by opposition-led, anti-government protests demanding Hun Sen's resignation.

Cambodia began exporting garments in the 1990s. Low wages and an abundant workforce, powered mainly by the country's rural population, have drawn major clothing brand names like GAP, H&M, Nike and Puma to Cambodia. Today, the industry is a $5bn-a-year business with almost 550 factories, mostly owned by Taiwanese, Korean, Chinese, Hong Kong and Singaporean companies.

The garment sector accounts for more than 80 percent of Cambodia's exports and is the cornerstone of the country's economy. Yet these fashion powerhouses pay their workers a pittance, and a series of tragedies threaten to shut down the industry.

Early last year, the ceiling of a shoe factory collapsed, killing three workers. The workers in the company, Wing Star Shoe, were working on Asics shoes. Eyewitnesses say that the heavy weight from the second floor caused the ceiling to collapse. Mass faintings are also common. Investigations show that garment workers typically toil in poorly ventilated factories, work long overtime hours to earn extra income and suffer from malnutrition.

We travel to Sihanoukville to investigate allegations that a factory producing shoes for Japanese international brand Asics has continued to hire underage workers despite repeated warnings.

Back in the capital Phnom Penh, frustrated workers have begun protesting outside factories, demanding better pay and working conditions. Strikes have become common. Following Bangladesh's high-profile garment factory accidents, Cambodia's union leaders and workers are demanding a minimum wage of $160 a month - $60 higher than what the government has offered.

Cambodia's most recent strike began on December 24, 2013. Protests began with relatively minor clashes with police, who used tear gas and batons. But on January 3, 2014, military police armed with assault rifles fired into a defiant crowd gathered outside the Canadia Industrial Park area. Police said the workers were hurling objects at them. At least five people died and 23 were arrested.

"The situation is like a war," Ath Thorn, the president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers' Democratic Union, says of the crackdown. He says demands for a higher minimum wage reflect Cambodia's rising cost of living.

Cheam Yeap, a government spokesperson, estimates losses of $200m in the two-week nationwide strike. International clothing retailers like Adidas and H&M have stepped forward to say they oppose the violence and called on the government to find a peaceful solution, stating that the workers have a right to safe working environments. But Ken Loo from the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia believes increasing the minimum wage will result in manufacturers closing down their factories and leaving Cambodia in search of cheaper options. He says the unions "are being silly" with their demands.

101 East examines the stalemate and asks, will the garment workers get what they deserve or will they continue to be fashion's victims?

How will it end for Cambodia’s #GarmentWorkers? Share your thoughts with us @AJ101East

101 East   airs each week at the following times GMT: Thursday: 2230; Friday: 0930; Saturday: 0330; Sunday: 1630.  

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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