When a group of six unions organized nationwide strikes in December demanding a $160 minimum wage, the opposition CNRP aggressively took up the cause.
Opposition leaders rallied support outside factory gates around the country and tens of thousands of garment workers flooded into Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where CNRP president Sam Rainsy told them not to accept a dollar less than $160 a month.
More than two months after the government violently suppressed demonstrations by garment workers and supporters of the CNRP, labor unions are planning a second round of strikes, set to begin next week, in which workers will be asked to stay at home.
But this time, the CNRP is taking a much more passive approach to its support for workers.
Mr. Rainsy said that CNRP leaders have not discussed what role the party will play in the upcoming strikes, set to begin on March 12, which are being organized by 16 labor unions and associations.
“We are going to express support for workers’ demands…but I cannot say anything now because I have to make a decision. We have to discuss it first, but it is very likely that our support for workers and union leaders will not be only verbal,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Following the lethal suppression of minimum wage protests on Veng Sreng Street on January 3, when military police shot dead five stone-throwing garment workers, the government argued that Mr. Rainsy and CNRP vice president Kem Sokha were responsible for inciting the violence, and summoned them to court for questioning.
This time around, the CNRP will be taking a more cautious approach to its involvement in labor strikes, Mr. Rainsy said.
“Some of our goals are exactly the same as the workers goals…so it is only a matter of consistency that we pursue the achievement of these goals, but what may change a little bit is the way we are going to achieve that,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“Looking back at what happened in January we have to be cautious to avoid any bloodshed,” he said. “But any peaceful demonstration we will join.”
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said that the CNRP would seek alternate means to achieving a higher minimum wage and the release of 21 protesters imprisoned in a maximum security prison in Kompong Cham province following minimum wage demonstrations in January.
“We have different ways of getting things done than just going out and screaming on the street,” Mr. Chhay said. “We understand that we are not succeeding, so we have to find a different direction, a different way.”
Mr. Chhay said that the CNRP would continue to lobby foreign governments and investors to apply pressure on the CPP government to improve the living conditions of workers and respect citizen’s constitutional rights.
“I am not saying we are going to abandon [demonstrations], but we will concentrate on other things and all the options are always around in our fight together with the unions,” he said. “If the time comes and we need to [demonstrate], we will do it again.”
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that the strikes will be more effective without the CNRP’s involvement.
“When the politicians get involved with this, the unions have a hard time working toward what we are asking for,” Mr. Sina said. “It confuses people into thinking that the unions are serving the politicians instead of the workers.”
“Politicians should not step in the unions’ business which makes the task more challenging,” he said.
“Then [the government] thinks that when they increase the salary, the [opposition] politicians will benefit.”
Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, said that she welcomed the support of either political party in addressing the demands of workers, which include higher wages, an end to legal action against union leaders, and the prosecution of security forces responsible for the shooting deaths of garment workers in January.
“It’s good for the CNRP to join us again since at least we will have the voice of their supporters,” she said.
“We also want CPP to come and support us,” she added. “The CPP is confused that workers are doing this for the sake of politics.”