On Labor Day, One March Abandoned, Another Improvised

About 2,000 workers in Phnom Penh on Sunday defied a government ban on celebrating International Labor Day with a march by getting as close as they could to the National Assembly, where they called for higher wages and changes to the newly approved Trade Union Law.

As it has done ahead of Labor Days past, Phnom Penh City Hall last week rejected union requests to march through the city on the grounds that they would wreak undue havoc on weekend drivers. But just as before, some of those unions ignored the warning, going ahead with their plans—if slightly revised and improvised.

Union leader Ath Thorn, center, leads a march toward the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Sunday to mark International Labor Day. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Union leader Ath Thorn, center, leads a march toward the National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Sunday to mark International Labor Day. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Instead of marching from Wat Phnom, Cambodian Labor Confederation president Ath Thorn led some 2,500 workers from outside the Russian Embassy at around 8 a.m. Blocked by about 100 police from walking up Sothearos Boulevard, however, the crowd rerouted around the Foreign Affairs Ministry and NagaWorld casino before being blocked again at Sisowath Quay—a few hundred meters shy of the Assembly—where they rallied until 11 a.m.

Eight representatives were eventually allowed into parliament to deliver their petition to the human rights commission. Among their main demands was a boost to the current $145 monthly minimum wage for garment workers to $207.

“I’m glad I have this chance to march on International Labor Day to demand an increase to our monthly wages. But I have no hope that it will increase to $207 because we used to demand $160 but got only $145,” said Rous Kea, a garment worker who came from Kandal province to join the march.

Ms. Kea said she and her husband struggle to support their six children on what they make. “I need $300 a month to live because I pay $50 just for rent, so I need to make money from other jobs to cover our monthly expenses.”

But not all of Sunday’s unions went ahead with their marches.

Workers rally at Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh yesterday to mark International Labor Day. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Workers rally at Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh yesterday to mark International Labor Day. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

A group of about 10 unions and NGOs abandoned their plans to march from Olympic Stadium to the Labor Ministry and kept the roughly 400 workers who joined them at the sports venue—though they did not suffer City Hall’s ban in silence.

“The weather today is hot, and the political situation is also getting hot,” said labor leader Vorn Pao, referencing the government’s mounting lawsuits against the opposition CNRP and rights advocates.

“Our rights are becoming smaller and smaller. That’s why we have to mark the anniversary at Olympic Stadium,” he said.

Tes Rukhaphal, a member of the Labor Ministry’s committee for strike resolution, was on hand to accept a petition from the groups.

As with the unions gathered near the National Assembly, they demanded a revised union law in line with the International Labor Organization conventions that Cambodia has signed on to.

Ahead of its passage by parliament last month, several unions complained that the new rules were too restrictive. The garment industry argued that the new rules were needed to impose more order on an unruly labor force.

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