More than 1,000 garment workers and their supporters defied the city government and marched through Phnom Penh Tuesday, urging a four-hour reduction in the 48-hour workweek.
But they will not go on strike today as they had threatened, saying that the government has agreed to discuss the matter at an upcoming meeting.
“Go to work as usual,” Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, told the workers massed outside the Ministry of Labor.
“But if the issue is not addressed within the next three months,” he said, “the next strike will be 10 times bigger than this.”
Union leaders had threatened to strike from today through Monday if the government had not agreed to address the workweek issue at the next meeting of the Labor Advisory Committee.
Workers said they were glad they don’t have to strike today, but said they are willing to do so in the future to gain better working conditions.
Thaa, a 20-year-old garment worker, said things have improved since last year’s strike over the minimum wage. “Before, we had to work more overtime and we would get abused for the smallest mistake,” she said. “Now conditions are better.”
The May Day demonstration was boisterous but peaceful, with festive workers waving banners, singing, chanting, and vowing to keep up the pressure until they reach their goals.
The demonstration, scheduled to begin at 7 am, got off to a slow start because trucks carrying workers and union officials into Phnom Penh were delayed by police, union organizers said.
George McLeod, international liaison officer with the FTU, said police on Route 2 had refused to let several trucks stop in front of factories to pick up workers.
He said Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara intervened personally to allow the trucks to proceed.
Union officials had been upset that the city had denied them permission for a march through the city, saying they would only be allowed to rally in the park across from the National Assembly.
The workers elected to march anyway, and proceeded from the Assembly to the ministries of Justice, Labor and Commerce before ending at the Council of Ministers.
Workers were marching for a variety of reasons. One group from the San San Garment Co of Cambodia said they hope factory management will respect the labor law.
Moa Sok Han, who said she has worked since 1994, said her salary is still $45 and she wants it raised to $70 per month.
A group of workers from Trinunggal Komara Cambodia Garment Co Ltd said they want the shorter workweek and better enforcement of the labor law.
They said their employers set stringent rules that make it difficult to work, especially regarding leaves of absence. Although workers earn less than $2 per day, they are docked $7 per day when they are absent, they said.
Although the National Assembly was not in session, Chea Vichea issued a call for “any brave representative” to come out and talk to the workers. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy responded, along with two representatives from his party: his wife, Tioulong Saumura, and Sun Kim Hun of Pailin.
“Thank you for coming here to demand workers’ rights,” Sun Kim Hun said. “This is the way to find freedom for the Khmer people.”
Tioulong Saumura said she is glad to support working women, adding that “once we have democracy, there will be no more injustice.”
Sam Rainsy said workers need a shorter workweek so they can have time to study and gain skills for better jobs.
He said workers also need a wage increase to at least $70 per month, while public employees should make at least $100 per month. The government says it has no money, but takes care of top officials, he said.
“My salary is $2,000 per month, and I feel very ashamed, because I do not work hard like you do,” he said. He drew gasps from the crowd when he said he had just come from the US, where low-paid workers earn in a day what Cambodian workers make in a month.
He also asked the crowd to fall silent for 10 seconds in memory of those killed at a rally on the same spot on March 30, 1997.
“You never forget those who died in a demonstration for the people’s freedom,” he said. At least 16 people were killed when someone tossed grenades into a crowd of demonstrators; no one has been arrested in connection with the incident.
Along the route, city police held back traffic and directed the marchers along their way. Chea Vichea thanked the governor several times for his help, and commended the police for their professionalism.
He vowed that the push for a shorter workweek would be the union’s main goal for 2001, and asked workers to contribute 1,000 riel each to buy “water and rice” for the next demonstration.
At the Council of Ministers, the guards seemed unimpressed. “I don’t know what good this is going to do you, because nobody’s working here today,” one said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)