Cambodia’s garment manufacturers were advised to temporarily shut down operations Thursday as tens of thousands of workers at hundreds of factories joined nationwide strikes over wages, disrupting a $5 billion industry that accounts for about 80 percent of the country’s exports.
Rallies led by the opposition CNRP also continued to swell, reaching more than 10,000 people in the afternoon, as workers walked off the job and spent the day in Freedom Park, joining the 12th consecutive day of demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC), which represents more than 400 factories employing more than 400,000 employees, sent an email to its members Thursday morning advising them to send workers home.
“GMAC [executive committee] strongly suggest all members to stop operation for a whole of this week and let the workers stay home,” the message says.
“If the workers are working in the factories, some bad elements of the demonstrators will go around and destroy your factories gates and properties in order to force the workers out to join the demonstration to demand the wage of $160,” the email continues.
Kaing Monika, GMAC’s business development manager, said that the Ministry of Labor had provided information to the association that approximately 240 factories
within a 40 km radius of Phnom Penh were affected by strikes and demonstrations Thursday.
“Most factories…will temporarily allow workers to go home,” Mr. Monika said.
GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said that he was not sure how long such measures might remain in place.
“It is just starting today. How long is it going to last? We don’t know,” he said.
“The industry can’t sustain being closed, not even one day, because our production schedule is tight as hell.”
During a press conference held Thursday evening in Phnom Penh’s Old Place restaurant, members of GMAC’s executive committee denied that workers were leaving the factories in protest of the minimum wage decision, suggesting instead that rogue groups were going from factory to factory forcing workers to join demonstrations through threats of violence.
Ly Tekheng, GMAC’s operations manager, blamed the exodus of workers on “frightening and violent acts of external people behaving like gangsters.”
“GMAC can confirm the problem is not because workers are not happy with the minimum wage, but factories stop production for safety reasons,” he said.
Reporters in attendance were shown CCTV camera footage from Tuesday and Thursday of groups of young men and women kicking down the gates of at least four separate factories in Phnom Penh.
However, union leaders and labor advocates said that the explosion of strikes across the country was a direct result of the government’s latest minimum wage decision. The Labor Advisory Council, which sets the minimum wage in the garment sector, approved on Tuesday a government plan to raise the minimum wage to $95, an increase of just $15 more than the current monthly wage of $80.
That figure fell well short of union demands for a $160 monthly wage, leading the country’s independent and opposition-aligned unions to announce that they would organize nationwide demonstrations and strikes for a higher wage.
But, according to Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, striking workers have not waited for the approval of their union leaders to demonstrate.
“It is out of control at the moment,” Mr. Tola said of the mass strike action.
“[Union leaders] announced about the strike, but they also had the plan to notify and follow legal procedure. But local leaders and workers themselves don’t wait [to strike],” Mr. Tola said.
Mr. Tola suggested that GMAC’s recommendation that factories close was done to make it more difficult for workers to organize, but he said that the decision may have the opposite effect.
“The strategy to close the factories for a couple of days is, I suspect, to stop people from joining the protests…. If they stay at home, it is hard to mobilize them,” Mr. Tola said.
“I don’t think this will be a solution. If workers are allowed to have a day off with pay, people will be free to join CNRP protests,” he said.
The CNRP has jumped on the minimum wage issue this week, sending party leaders across the country to encourage garment workers to join a mass demonstration on Sunday, which opposition leader Sam Rainsy said will be the biggest since July’s contested election.
Six union leaders have been invited to attend a meeting today at the Ministry of Labor to discuss the widespread industrial action.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said that the union leaders, including Ath Thorn, Chea Mony and Morm Nhim, would be asked to explain their role in the strikes, as well as the alleged destruction of factory property.
“We invited them to attend the meeting tomorrow to ask them for an explanation, because we received information that they have been inciting workers to join strikes against the decision to raise the minimum wage,” Mr. Sour said.
“We will also ask them about information we received that some unions have been threatening to hold mass demonstrations to destroy the property of factories,” he added.
Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Coalition of Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), the country’s largest independent union, said that he would attend the meeting, but would not call off demonstrations unless the minimum wage was revised.
“We demand [a minimum wage of] $160. Workers will continue to hold protests if the Ministry of Labor doesn’t agree with our proposal,” he said.
Oum Visal, a legal officer at the CCAWDU, estimated that workers at more than 300 factories went on strike Thursday. Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, said that his members were striking at 188 factories, up from 82 on Wednesday.
Union representatives reported strikes at factories in Phnom Penh, Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang, Kandal, Kompong Cham and Prey Veng provinces.
Mok Chito, acting Phnom Penh municipal police chief, blamed the CNRP for stoking the labor strikes.
“I think the CNRP has incited workers to join the strikes,” Mr. Chito said, adding that the workers were only interested in the opposition’s pledge to raise wages to $160.
“Workers are just holding strikes to demand higher wages. They don’t care about political issues” such as the CNRP’s demand that Mr. Hun Sen steps down, Mr. Chito said.
“We are now considering taking action in accordance with the law against a group of people who incited workers to attempt to topple the government.”