As Workers Boycott Overtime, CPP Goes on Counteroffensive

As thousands of garment factory workers continued to boycott working overtime in the first phase of a threatened nationwide strike, Prime Minister Hun Sen and CPP-aligned union leaders have launched their own campaign to keep the industry’s labor force at work.

Mr. Hun Sen personally called on factory workers Tuesday to refrain from taking part in strikes that he said could destroy the garment industry, and CPP-aligned unions distributed leaflets warning workers of the danger of joining the strike, which is planned for the middle of March.

“We try to contact and facilitate factories to invest in Cambodia…and they have moved out from the countries that have high labor prices to our location, which has reasonable labor prices,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a speech at the opening of a coal-powered electricity plant in Preah Sihanouk province.

The prime minister said that people who are supporting workers in their calls for a $160 minimum wage would be exposed as frauds when factories begin to leave the country due to high rates of industrial action.

“We will wait and watch factories shut down because of demonstrations or strikes to increase salaries. And when they shut down their factories, please workers, do demonstrations to demand that the inciters find you jobs,” Mr. Hun Sen, apparently referring to the opposition CNRP, which has supported workers’ demands for a wage increase.

Mr. Hun Sen said the government was already doing its best to balance wages with a positive climate for investment.

“We have been working very hard to somehow make the original cost of the product favorable for [factory owners] to produce and [we have been] working hard to increase salaries and other bonuses for workers in our garment sector,” Mr. Hun Sen said, adding that Cambodia’s minimum wage is higher than in Laos, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

At $68, Bangladesh has the lowest minimum wage of any garment producing country in the world. Laos’ minimum wage of $78 is the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam, however, has regional minimum wages, which are higher in industrial areas than Cambodia’s newly introduced $100 floor wage. In India, the minimum wage is tiered depending on the skill level of workers, while in Nepal, the minimum wage was raised above $90 last year.

As 18 non-government labor unions and associations have distributed leaflets over the past week calling on workers to take part in collective action to raise the minimum wage to $160, government-aligned unions in the garment sector have started handing out competing flyers telling workers to remain calm and carry on working.

“Please all workers stay quiet and do not believe ill-intended [people] who lead you to join strikes and demonstrations that are politically motivated and will result in losing benefits and time,” reads an anti-strike leaflet signed by the leaders of five unions aligned with the ruling party.

“After having experienced strikes and demonstrations by a small number of the unions, they have not received any benefits for the workers, and in contrast, workers have often lost their work day and other bonuses and their jobs,” the leaflet continues.

The leaflet also tells workers not to join strikes to free 21 protesters who were imprisoned following lethal suppression of garment strike demonstrations by the military police who shot dead five strike protesters and wounded more than 40 others last month.

“This is the court procedure and we hope that the court will provide justice for them in compliance with the law,” the leaflet says.

Chuon Mom Thol, one of the pro-government union leaders who signed the anti-strike leaflet, said that strikes were counterproductive.

“The more you strike doesn’t mean the more you win,” Mr. Mom Thol said. “It means the more you lose.”

“We receive the membership fee from our members and our duty is to give them some guidance,” he said. “We encourage them if they are OK with working overtime, and if they don’t want to lose their benefits during the day of the strike, they should not go on strike.”

Mr. Mom Thol added that after garment sector strikers merged with CNRP demonstrations in late December and early January, the political split between unions in the industry became more clearly defined.

“Now we divide unions into two groups: pro and anti. There is no independent [union],” Mr. Mom Thol said. “The anti group is the Sam Rainsy group. The pro group is the ruling party group.”

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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