Garment Factories Report Major Drop in Strikes

Both the number of strikes and the number of lost work days in Cambodia’s $5.5-billion garment industry decreased significantly last year after peaking in 2013, according to the latest industry figures.

The country’s crucial but volatile garment sector suffered an unprecedented number of strikes in 2013, based on figures collected by members of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents the sector’s more than 500 export factories.

Striking garment factory workers demonstrate outside the Labor Ministry in Phnom Penh in December 2013 amid a series of escalating protests for a minimum wage of $160 per month. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Striking garment factory workers demonstrate outside the Labor Ministry in Phnom Penh in December 2013 amid a series of escalating protests for a minimum wage of $160 per month. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

But according to GMAC’s latest figures, the number of strikes fell by more than 25 percent, from 147 in 2013 to 108 in 2014. The number of lost work days fell by even more, from 889,000 to 513,000, a decrease of about 40 percent.

The figures do not include the 15 days of nationwide strikes that brought much of the industry to a halt in late December 2013 and early January 2014.

GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng said Sunday that the 15 days were not included because the association considered them to be political events rather than industrial actions.

He blamed the peak in strikes and lost working days in 2013 on the opposition CNRP, which he accused of whipping up discontent among garment workers for votes in an election year.

“There were a high number of strikes in 2013 because there [was] instability and the political party used the minimum wage for political gain,” Mr. Sou Ieng said.

The CNRP stumped hard for the garment-worker vote heading into the July 2013 poll by promising the laborers higher wages if elected. Unions organized the nationwide strikes that started in December 2013 after the Labor Ministry decided to raise the monthly minimum wage for garment workers from $80 to $95, much less than what workers were demanding.

After an especially turbulent 2013, Mr. Sou Ieng said, the negotiations that followed in 2014 between the unions, factories and government for yet another boost to the minimum wage helped to defuse tensions and bring the number of strikes down. The Labor Ministry eventually settled on a new wage of $128, enough to convince the unions not to go back on strike.

Ath Thorn, president of the largest independent union in the country, the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, and one of the leaders of the December 2013 strikes, agreed that the elections had helped fuel a rise in strikes in 2013.

But he said the drop in strikes last year had at least as much to do with the wage talks as with the way authorities suppressed the protests and strikes that began in late 2013.

“The government [did] not allow gatherings, and the minimum wage increased,” he said.

On January 3, 2014, military police brought the growing number of protests outside of garment factories to an abrupt and bloody halt by firing into a crowd of rock-throwing protesters in Phnom Penh, killing at least five garment workers and injuring dozens more. The following day, security forces and masked thugs stormed an outdoor camp of CNRP supporters at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park with sticks and axes.

For the next several months, the park was off limits to any form of protest, and demonstrations across the city were banned. Some union leaders, including Mr. Thorn, were charged with inciting the protests and ordered to stay away from their union members.

Mr. Thorn said the unions also helped matters in 2014 by accepting, grudgingly, the $128 minimum wage the Labor Ministry set in November.

Whatever brought the number of strikes down last year, both Mr. Thorn and Mr. Sou Ieng said the drop should help revive some of the confidence in Cambodia that international brands lost in 2013.

peter@cambodiadaily.com

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